Finally … a moment to catch my breath. The last few weeks have involved an avalanche of radio interviews – most of them live to air, which certainly had my adrenalin flowing. A few days ago, I had my final interview – with Steve Austin on ABC Radio Brisbane. I’ve really enjoyed the interviews, and I’ve talked to some wonderful radio presenters from around Australia and New Zealand. Thanks to Radio National (Life Matters and Nightlife), ABC Radio New England, ABC Regional WA Drive, ABC Brisbane Mornings, 2GB Sydney, Talk Network Queensland, 2AD Armidale, 2RE Taree, Radio New Zealand, Geelong 94.7FM and Radio Adelaide. The Armidale Express, the Northern Daily Leader and that’s life magazine also featured articles about Wild Boys, and Varuna Writers’ House did an alumni interview. An article will soon be appearing in The Sun Herald. It’s very affirming to see Wild Boys attract so much interest – obviously, people are still looking for answers on how to parent teenagers and understand the nature of wild boys (see Wild Boys for available podcasts).

Also, over the last month, Armidale has become a winter wonderland and my fire has been burning – literally and metaphorically – night and day. Amongst the hubbub of promoting the book, I’ve begun a new collaboration with a local composer – I’m writing lyrics for a song cycle he wants to do, and it’s very exciting to embark on a new project, especially one that isn’t a solo journey and won’t take years and years to complete. Collaborations are fun … and the creative possibilities of life suddenly seem endless again.


PS: My PhD results came back a few weeks ago – only a handful of minor corrections to do and soon that journey is over!

Hello again. This post is about distractions, which can be dangerous for writers, and which have recently engulfed me in a big way – even though I’d resolved to be more focussed and dedicated; prepared to spend long hours working alone in my room while declining the more immediate gratifications that life threw my way. Some distractions, of course, are valid – my mother is due to go into hospital to have a knee operation soon, and I’m pretty distracted by that because three and a half years ago my father went into hospital to have a knee operation and never came out again. I’m also feeling crap after a too-short haircut, and have had some busy times over the school holidays with kids and birthdays and so on. Maybe there was something in the stars last week because I heard several people say they reached record lows, but that’s the way it is sometimes – you need the lows before you reach the highs.

So last Monday night, feeling sad and sorry for myself (and super-ugly because of my haircut), I moped around the house, trying to work out why I was so miserable. I’d organised a catch-up session with my neighbour and fellow writer, Jim Vicars, but felt too fragile for visitors, so I texted Jim not to come. But he rang and insisted on coming anyway, so I had a bath and laid out a fresh tablecloth and lit candles and found the last of a bottle of whisky in the cupboard and put two delicate gold-rimmed glasses on the table … and by then I was starting to feel a little better. It was Chinese New Year and that was something worth celebrating.

Jim brought me some freshly-baked Anzac biscuits which was a lovely treat, and I poured the whisky and we toasted the Year of the Dragon and chatted about our PhD writing projects and other matters. Over the second glass of whisky, I told Jim about an arty home-decorating idea I’d had, and he got very excited and suggested it could be the basis for my next creative nonfiction project – “It’s got legs!” – and we had a fabulous brain-storming session. By the time Jim went home I was feeling born-again, full of joy to be a writer, and the possibilities for the future suddenly seemed endless because yes, this new idea does have legs and it could be a whole new direction in life and oh, the things I could do … But the next day, when I was telling my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, about my wonderful new idea, she very wisely said, ‘Watch out for distractions, Helena.’

She is so right.

My idea is good, I can feel it in my bones, but The Year of the Dragon is my year of completion – I want to have the memoir ready for HarperCollins by April, and the PhD finished by August, and that won’t happen while I’m dreaming about a new project. So I’ve shoved it on the backburner – where it can simmer away for the next eight months while I focus on what is most important right now. With that in mind, I’ve just printed out the Varuna blah. As you know, I’m a little wary about reading it again – 66,000 words written straight from the heart over six days at Varuna last April and not looked at since. It’s scary to think about what I’m going to find in there … and yes, writing this blog post is a distraction, and then I have to make a cake for a party tonight, but I’ll definitely start reading it tomorrow. I promise! Until next time …

Hello again and welcome back to my blog. I’ve had a busy week ‘Varuna-ising’ my life:  creating a new private work area in my bedroom (my desk was previously in the middle of the house), clearing out lots of old papers, tidying bookshelves, organising some quiet time and, as usual, walking a lot. It’s been an ‘out with the old, in with the new’ preparatory time, and now I’m ready to begin work on the memoir. During the week, I also had a ‘phone-meet’ with my mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen. As mentioned in a previous post, my memoir has attracted a lot of interest over the last few years, and last December I was awarded an Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Mentorship to develop the manuscript. Each year, fifteen to twenty mentorships are offered, and the winning writers receive thirty hours mentoring from a professional writer or editor of their choice. For many emerging writers, it is a step-up to publication. This is actually my second ASA mentorship with Judith; we worked together during 2010 on my other manuscript: ‘Yahtzee and the Art of Happiness’. Judith is one of Australia’s most respected editors, and I still can’t believe I have the opportunity to work with her for another year. We’ve never met, but we have regular ‘phone-meets’ which last an hour or so, and I really enjoy her involvement in my life as a writer.

As part of the mentorship, Judith reads my manuscript at the beginning and then again at the end of the re-working process, and in between we discuss any issues that arise. We’d only had one ‘phone-meet’ before I left for Varuna, during which we’d mainly discussed issues to do with structure and content. So, last week, I filled Judith in on what had happened at Varuna, and about the suggestions I’d received from Anne Reilly, my HarperCollins editor. You’re probably getting confused at this point: yes, it is unusual to have input from two editorial programs like this. But, basically, Anne Reilly is working with me at the structural editing stage (and will move into fine editing when the memoir is ready, and will then hopefully champion the memoir to publication – yes!); while Judith is working at the mentoring stage. For me, it helps to compare it to the process of having a homebirth (my children were all born at home). The memoir is the baby. Anne Reilly is the hands-on midwife who is responsible for bringing my baby safely into the world, and she will be with me till the very end; Judith Lukin-Amundsen is my extremely knowledgeable support person, ready with hot washers and back rubs to help with the pain, but she can only offer me thirty hours of her time during this labour. That’ll be more than enough, I reckon: the three of us are going to be a dynamic team and we’ll get this baby out by the end of the year (ready to be submitted to HarperCollins, that is).

Judith was very impressed with Anne’s re-shaping ideas, and also with how much productivity Anne had drawn out of me during my time at Varuna. We discussed the life journey writing activity – which generated 66 000 words of what I now call the Varuna ‘blah’ – and I also told Judith about Anne’s idea of structuring the memoir into a ‘five act plan’, similar to how Shakespeare organised much of his work. It runs something like this: Act One sets up the problem, the background or context, and introduces the characters; Act Two builds on the troubles that concern the lead characters; Act Three is where the agent of change enters the scene; Act Four describes the crisis that precedes the major change; and finally, Act Five sees the resolution of the story, where the key test has been passed. This final act often includes a twist in the tale, something the reader isn’t expecting.

When I finished explaining all this, Judith admitted that she would be feeling a little overwhelmed if she was me, but she went on to reassure me that it was all very ‘do-able’. How’s that? A reduced version of the current manuscript will form acts three, four and half of five; selected parts of the life story ‘blah’ from Varuna will form acts one, two and the end of five. According to Judith, I have ‘bucket-loads’ of stuff already written, my re-structuring notions are ‘terrifically organised’ and she has great faith in my ability to get the job done.

At some stage of the conversation, Judith commented that a good narrative (or story) has brights and darks, just as life does. I love that expression: brights and darks. How true it is. But although I’ve had my fair share of darks – the reason behind all that weeping at Varuna – I’m not writing a ‘misery memoir’. I want my story to lift people’s spirits, to be funny as well as moving, to offer hope. So, before I begin to write acts one and two (starting next Monday), I’m doing a bit of reading to see how different writers integrate ‘dark’ material into their stories without it becoming depressing or boring for the reader. Anh Do does a great job in ‘The Happiest Refugee’ … I bought his memoir on impulse the other day and I’ve learnt heaps already, even though I’ve not yet finished the book. Writing about his early life as a Vietnamese refugee, Anh Do shares plenty of hard times, but I still find myself laughing out loud as I turn the pages. Brights and darks. Also, by the end of the first page, he had me hooked. His story punched me in the guts; it has emotional truth and I need to find out what happens next. That’s the sort of reader-response I’m aiming for.

Before I finish this post, I want to thank Anna Hedigan for setting up this blog for me when we were at Varuna (and while I was at the masseur!). Anna’s wide-ranging knowledge and resourcefulness was remarkable – if my oven ever catches on fire, she’s the sort of woman I want in my kitchen. I had planned to enlighten you about an index-card method I’ve stumbled across (which will hopefully make the task ahead a little less overwhelming), and also mention the supportive writing-relationship I enjoy with my friend, Edwina Shaw, but those topics will have to wait till next time. Until then …