Yep, I’m procrastinating. Currently engulfed in PhD paralysis, but I’m expecting it to pass in approximately … hmmm … fifteen minutes or so. I’ve never known anything like this sort of inertia. Me – the former Deadline Queen – reduced to applying for endless PhD extensions. Sigh.

Anyway, onwards and upwards – and I’d better hurry up and finish this post because I only have fourteen minutes left and need to make coffee. The latest news is that Bernie Shakeshaft, whose unique style of youth work forms the focus of my memoir-manuscript, has won a 2014 Churchill Fellowship to research international methods in youth work. In 2015, Bernie will spend seven weeks in America and Canada, where he will visit a range of innovative youth programs and learn some new ways of doing things. Bernie’s latest success is not only hugely inspiring, but it has also helped generate a bit of action on the manuscript. I’ll keep a lid on it for now – but there’s definitely ‘movement at the station’.

I’ve also just finished working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way again. I introduced the book to a friend six months ago, and then decided to accompany him on his rather relaxed journey through each of the chapters. About halfway through the book, I found myself experimenting with a new genre – a different outlet for my words – and the ability to work with this new genre feels like an unexpected gift, like magic. I love what’s happening, but I’m going to ‘zip the lip’ for now because this new work needs nurturing and protection. As Julia Cameron says: ‘The first rule of magic is self-containment … don’t give away the gold’. A good rule for me to follow.

Well … time’s almost up. Better make myself an extra strong coffee and get back to the thesis.

Finally getting back in the groove again after several super-busy months of doing everything but creative writing. Aside from having a number of part-time jobs – like maybe four! – I’m edging towards the final stage of my PhD in Creative Research Practice, so I haven’t had much time to devote to new work. But over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a new idea that will combine my two passions in life – singing and writing – with a fascinating slice of Spanish history. Olѐ! I’ve also made progress on ‘The Bakery Stories’ novella, and, after working on my PhD for what seems like the last eight hundred years, I finally understand the concept of a ‘research question’ and how to master the academic voice. I tell you, life is good!

I didn’t get a Hedgebrook residency and still haven’t heard back from the publisher, but I feel buoyant and happy. One thing which helped was re-reading The Artist’s Way, especially the section on ‘Recovering a Sense of Strength’. In this chapter, Julia Cameron offers a range of strategies for dealing with artistic ‘loss’ – for example, instead of thinking: ‘Why me?’ after a rejection, we can think: ‘What next?’ Simply changing a thought can help us keep moving forward. Julia Cameron also writes about the importance of ‘filling the form’ – which means taking one small action each day towards achieving a creative dream instead of becoming stuck because life isn’t presenting the perfect conditions. The concrete goal that signifies the accomplishment of this dream is an artist’s ‘true north’.

As I read through Julia Cameron’s advice on ‘Recovering a Sense of Strength’, I realised I’d become ‘stuck’ in recent months because I’d been thinking: ‘I can’t possibly write anything new until I finish the PhD / secure an agent / get published / go to America / win a $40,000 grant / hang the washing / cook dinner / (insert any excuse here).’ But since I started taking one small step every day – like reading through my father’s recollections of the war in Holland, or writing an updated synopsis for a grant application, or having a go at writing a parable – I’ve re-discovered the joys and the excitement of the creative process, and I’m back to thinking: ‘Holy heck! How lucky am I?’

Another thing which helped recently was a friend’s advice: ‘Energy follows intent,’ he told me. ‘Work out what it is you want, then go and get it.’ So I’ve set the compass to my own version of ‘true north’, and, step by step, I’ll get there!

Until next time …

Hello again. This week’s post is about the importance of ‘believing mirrors’. In a 1985 ABC radio interview, Leonard Cohen (who was touring Australia at the time), commented that he had become much more ‘careful’ with his writing as he grew older, that it didn’t come as easily as it did when he was a younger man. When the interviewer asked whether that took something away from the enjoyment of it, he replied: ‘I never thought it was a joyous activity … I mean, one feels a certain sense of relief when you can finish a song or a book, but you’re generally working in, more or less, dark corners.’

I often think about that comment – I’ve worked in quite a few dark corners over the years, and I know I’ll come across more in the months and years ahead. Writing can be a lonely, dispiriting activity; many writers suffer from self-esteem issues, deal regularly with rejection and question themselves and their choice of career. The last fortnight has been one of those times for me. An article in the local paper, headlined: ‘“Don’t think too highly of your ability,” writers told,’ seemed like it had been written for me; I had a succession of rejections, my grand plan failed and my index-card box is still empty – I didn’t even manage to file those two ‘almost ready’ scenes. This was partly because of a PhD deadline I had to meet … but it’s always easy to find excuses, and excuses won’t get the job done. I haven’t yet mentioned in this blog that my memoir is part of a PhD in Creative Research Practice at the University of New England, and that I’m due to submit on the 15th December, 2011. I was planning to suspend my studies for six months and focus only on the HarperCollins re-write, but last week I decided to combine the two jobs – set small, gentle goals and meet them, right? – because I need to finish the PhD and move on in my life (and I also saw a psychic who told me that the message from the spirits was do not suspend! Okay!!!).

When I spoke with my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, about the dilemma of whether to suspend or not, she said she’d seen many writers struggle through similar creative degrees, and added: ‘PhDs aren’t good for creative writers – it often wrecks the work, and there’s a lot of anxiety about the exegesis. Books aren’t meant to be written as part of PhDs.’ I tend to agree, although I suppose it depends on your previous academic experiences. In my case, I’ve been feeling nervous about the exegesis (a 20-25000 word critical analysis of the PhD creative project) for the last three years, but the time has now come to write it. No more running away. I do worry, though. Chris Lilley, creator of Angry Boys and Summer Heights High, says of the creative process: ‘If you over-think, it affects things too much; I work instinctively … think too much and you ruin everything.’ But to write an exegesis you have to think deeply about your work, so you can explain your research practice to your examiners. I hope I haven’t ruined everything …

Anyway, what I really want to emphasise in this post is the value of supportive writing friendships. At my lowest point last week, when I could no longer find my way out of one of those dark corners, I rang my friend Edwina Shaw and had a meltdown over the phone about how I’d never be able to write a concise plan for the exegesis, and how I’d had four rejections in a fortnight, and how friggin’ long was I going to have to wait to get my previous memoir published and what was the point of it all? She reminded me that after more than eight years of writing practice, and with two creative nonfiction manuscripts under my belt, I was more than capable of writing a damn interesting exegesis that might even get published one day and I just needed to relax and trust myself. Yes. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls a friend like Edwina (someone who believes in you and your creativity) a ‘believing mirror’, and says that having people like that in your life is the single most important factor in an artist’s sustained productivity. Not only did Edwina help me out of a dark corner, but she also encouraged me to do the work. We’ve been believing mirrors for each other for over eight years, and I’m very thankful for her support and friendship. I reckon we’re both moving towards the next stage of our lengthy writing apprenticeships … but more about that next time. I’ll end this post with one of Edwina’s favourite sayings: ‘Onwards and upwards!’

Hello again. This week’s post is about organising your work. When I was discussing this subject with Judith Lukin-Amundsen (my Australian Society of Authors mentor) the other week, she said: ‘Writing a book and trying to keep it all in your head is like holding your breath for a year.’ I agree – except for me, it’s been nearly four years. Having some sort of organising process in place will hopefully enable me to breathe again – even if it’s just little gasps – and make it through to the end.

During our last ‘phone-meet’, I explained to Judith that I was going to try an index-card method to help me cope with the task ahead. As mentioned in a previous post, I have 66 000 words of loose-writing – the Varuna ‘blah’ – from which I now need to choose pieces to craft into scenes that will help me create a bigger picture of who I am for the reader of my memoir – and then those scenes will merge with selected scenes from my existing manuscript (85 000 words) to form an improved narrative based around a five-act structure. Sounds easy? No way. In fact, lately I’ve been feeling somewhat panic-stricken at what I have to do. However, easy or not, the job has to be done. I’m not sure whether it will be better to go through the ‘blah’ from beginning to end, or, alternatively, to pick and choose and go with what I feel like writing about on that particular day, but whatever strategy I decide on, once I finish writing a new scene I will print out its basic details onto an index card and file the card in a box. Each week I hope to add three index cards to the box. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron says it is important to set small gentle goals and meet them, so you feel like you are achieving something. Three new scenes a week is manageable for me at this stage. Once I finish going through the ‘blah’, I will then go back to the existing material and re-write selected parts into scenes which can also be filed on index cards.

When the time comes to merge the old material with the new, the index cards (along with the three sheets of cardboard that map my ‘life-journey’) will help me to structure the memoir into a different shape. I can imagine spreading the index cards over the floor and placing scenes that work well next to each other, much like piecing together a patchwork blanket. Judith said many writers use this method, although she warned that a feeling of randomness can develop and it is important to pay careful attention to the bridging between sections. Although the job ahead is daunting, I’m excited about it as well. I already have two scenes just about ready to slot into the box, and it’s refreshing to be working with new material again.

Over the last fortnight, I was also chatting with my friend, Edwina Shaw, and she said something which made me understand the need to form a clearer picture of myself in my writing. Edwina, with whom I share a deeply supportive writing-based friendship, also won a mentorship with Judith Lukin-Amundsen last year, and the two of them recently met at a coffee shop in Brisbane (I’ve never met Judith – we just have phone-meets). At some point in their conversation, my name was mentioned, and Judith said to Edwina that she thought of me as petite, perhaps a little fragile (all that weeping!). ‘Oh, no,’ Edwina had said in surprise. ‘Helena is tall, strong, beautiful!’ Gee thanks, Edwina … I’ll run with that for a while! (Why are there no photos on this blog, you ask? Never mind about photos … this is a blog about writing process). But, jokes aside, if Judith, after reading both of my memoir manuscripts and working closely with me for over a year, visualises me as petite – which is definitely not the case (emotionally fragile, maybe) – then something is missing from my work. And that is what I need to fix.

 Anyway, more about my friendship with Edwina in the next post, along with some wisdom from Leonard Cohen and Chris Lilley. Until then …keep writing!