Writing a memoir is all about taking the mess of life and shaping into a coherent, moving narrative. This is what author Lech Blaine did for his memoir, Car Crash. Then, when writing Top Blokes, a Quarterly Essay on Australian politics, he found himself weaving memoir into his writing once again.
What’s the cost of so much vulnerability, especially when writing about trauma, grief, personal mental health?
Lech Blaine is the author of the memoir Car Crash and Quarterly Essay ‘Top Blokes’. His writing has appeared in the Monthly, Guardian Australia, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. He was an inaugural recipient of a Griffith Review Queensland Writing Fellowship.
In episode 52, Lech speaks about the challenge of writing and releasing these two publications back to back during the pandemic, and the burnout that followed. He also discusses the epiphanies that writing memoir can bring despite unresolved feelings about events that are carefully distilled on the page, and the emotional toll of sharing so much vulnerability with readers.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton – Timeline by Michael Crichton – Sphere by Michael Crichton – Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton – State of Fear by Michael Crichton – Lee Child – John Grisham – Know My Name: A Memoir by Channel Miller – Specky Magee by Felice Arena and Garry Lyon – Harry Potter by JK Rowling – Glory Gardens by Bob Cattell
When Dinuka McKenzie first sat down to write a novel, she had no dreams of publication – or understanding of the craft of fiction. She was the working mother of two young kids, feeling like everyone wanted something from her all the time. All she wanted was to do something that was purely for herself.
Now she’s the award-winning author of The Torrent, a police procedural set in small town Australia.
In episode 51, we talk to Dinuka about why she chose a pregnant small town detective as her main character, how her own experience as a working mum influenced her story, and how she even managed to find time to write with everything else going on in her life (especially when she had a grumpy four-year-old hiding her phone after a Very Important Call)!
Dinuka also shares what it was like to win the 2020 Banjo Prize, the anxiety that comes with achievement, and how she needs to remind herself to step back and enjoy it all.
Dinuka McKenzie is an Australian writer and book addict. Her debut crime-fiction manuscript The Torrent won the 2020 Banjo Prize. She works in the environmental sector and is part of the Writers’ Unleashed Festival team. She lives in Southern Sydney with her husband, two kids and their pet chicken.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – The Housemate by Sarah Bailey – The Others by Mark Brandi – The Shadow House by Anna Downes (from ep 5) – The Good Mother by Rae Cairns – Wake by Shelly Burr – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor – Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding – How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998 by Helen Garner – Theft by Finding by David Sedaris – A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris
How do we build community and a sense of self after loss, especially the kind of loss that echoes for generations?
In episode 48, James and I talk to Australian author Shankari Chandran about her latest novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, and how her efforts to find connection in the writing community echo her Tamil family’s work to build community after being dispossessed from their homeland in the Sri Lankan civil war.
As she writes, ‘Possession of land is nine-tenths of the law. Possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’
Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra, Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field, before returning to Australia, where she now lives with her husband and children. She is the author of two previous novels, Song of the Sun God, and The Barrier, and has been shortlisted for the Fairway National Literary Award and the Norma K Hemming Award for speculative fiction.
In this episode, we discuss the reshaping of historical narratives, how families live with the legacy of genocide and dispossession, and Shankari’s struggle to find a publisher for her novels in Australia, and how her writing has helped her find a sense of community and connection.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (from ep 18) – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall – David Heska Wanbli Weiden (from ep 40) – Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian translated by Mabel Lee – Amnesia Road by Luke Stegemann (from ep 26)
James and Ashley Stay at Home, the podcast I co-host with author James McKenzie Watson, is about to hit 50 episodes.
We’ve been exploring writing, creativity and health since way back in June 2020, and we’ve talked to an amazing variety of guests. If you live with chronic illness or have a writing or creative practice, we’re bringing you guests that we hope you’ll love and learn from, as we have.
To celebrate our (almost!) 50 eps, here are our all-time top 10 most popular episodes.
10. Burning out with Yumiko Kadota, author of Emotional Female (ep 28) Dr Kadota shares shares the devastating effects of burnout, the difficulties women of colour face in the public health system, and the possible future directions of chronic fatigue research. Her revealing memoir is a bestseller so it’s no surprise this ep is so popular.
9. Recovering from childhood with Ruhi Lee, author of Good Indian Daughter (ep 30) Ruhi Lee (who recently revealed her real name, Sneha Lees) discusses what it means to be a girl in a South Asian family, the notion of unconditional parental love, and how one generation avoids making the same mistakes as the last. Her memoir is raw and real, and full of unexpected laughs.
8. The healing power of creativity with Karin Foxwell, art therapist (ep 9) In this fascinating interview, Karin describes the profound therapeutic power of art, as she’s observed in her work with military and emergency services personnel who’ve sustained PTSD in the course of their service. She also describes a ‘standard’ art therapy session, discusses the therapeutic power of writing, and explains why she thinks everyone should engage in some kind of art therapy.
This is an incredibly heartening episode, and I recommend it every time I teach about creativity.
7. Living with chronic illness: James and Ashley talk health (ep 10) James and I discuss our own illnesses, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) respectively. We explain these conditions, discuss how they affect day to day life, and explore how illness has impacted our senses of self.
6. Where’smy Man Booker? James and Ashley share writing tips (ep 6) It turns out we should all listen when James discusses writing tips, since he went on to witn the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize! He knows what he’s doing.
5. The year that almost killed Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place (ep 5) Anna discusses the role motherhood and post-natal anxiety played in the development of her internationally bestselling debut The Safe Place, and how sacrificing one creative career helped pave the way for success in another. Anna’s second book, The Shadow House, is now in bookstores – and I’ll be in conversation with her about it for an online library event on Thursday 3 February. Join us!
4. Navigating creative anxiety with Kate Mildenhall, author of The Mother Fault (ep 13) Kate generously discusses the craft of novel writing, the challenges of penning a second book, and the creative anxieties that plague creatives. This is another episode I recommend in every one of my creativity workshops.
3.Introduction episode! (ep 1) If you’re new to James and Ashley Stay at Home, this is the place to start. (We hadn’t figured out how to write titles back then!)
2. How to survive an earthquake with Michelle Tom, author of Ten Thousand Aftershocks (ep 38) We discuss the captivating and highly original structure of Michelle’s memoir, the strange parallels between childhood trauma and earthquakes, and the transformative power of owning your narrative. This was our most popular episode of 2021.
1. Living in different universes with Ada Palmer, author and historian (ep 16) Ada Palmer is an historian, composer and author of the Terra Ignota sci-fi/fantasy book series. She’s also an incredible speaker who lives with invisible illness. Here, she discusses how she’s managed to achieve her astonishing body of work while living with chronic pain, and the relationship between identity and disability. Ada offers valuable advice to all creatives who experience illness, so it’s no wonder it our most popular episode yet.
Happy New Year! This morning I woke up early and went for a swim, and while the ocean waves slapped me in the face, I resolved to not complain about anything.
To be clear, that was my resolution for the day, ie January 1. There’s no way I’m going all year without complaining. Have you seen the weather forecast?
On New Year’s Eve, I watched the 9pm fireworks and pretended they were the midnight fireworks (this is easy if you ignore all the small children running round), and thought about the year past and the year ahead and the 21,000 covid cases reported in NSW that day.
Since I was diagnosed with CFS, I’ve mostly given up making resolutions. Last year I planned to use the word absquatulate more (more than never) and then promptly forgot about it. I still like this plan, but it’s tough to leave abruptly when I no longer go anywhere thanks to covid.
In 2020 I made some earnest resolutions, which was a real joke. And in 2019 I made probably the best set of resolutions of my life.
The fatigue improved significantly in 2021, much more than in 2020. It’s still a major factor in my life though, and an unpredictable one. I spent most of Christmas Day so unwell that I could barely sit up. Trying to eat was miserable.
On the other hand, at the start of December I attended the Bad Sydney Crime Writers Festival. I had a tremendous time with some of Australia’s most talented crime authors, and actually stayed awake until midnight for the first time since I got sick.
Between the CFS and covid (and my concerns about the possible combination of those two conditions for me personally), I think the only reasonable resolution I can make is to accept that the year ahead will be as capricious and unforeseeable as the previous five.
The motto of 2022: subject to change.
That said, I do have some fun and (thankfully!) online events coming up. In January, I’m teaching two more workshops with Laneway Learning.
Like everything else this year, my big acting debut happened while I was alone in my apartment, staring into the tiny green dot glowing above my computer screen.
And here it is!
Okay, yes, it’s just a quick video highlighting the great audiobooks available from my first publisher, Spineless Wonders, and the best app to get them from, AuthorsDirect.
But the raw emotive quality of my performance is clearly what carries the video, right?
Plus it’s no secret that Hollywood actors have larger than average heads, and mine definitely qualifies. It’s not just the hair! Although that does add several inches on top.
In conclusion, you should definitely listen to My Name Is Revenge on Authors Direct (or any good audiobook app) (or request it from your local library) and also don’t be surprised when I announce my role in the next Thor movie (probably playing a giant floating head intent on destroying New York City or at least lower Manhattan, I haven’t seen the script yet).
When Jacinta Dietrich’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to fiction to find this new terrain explored on the page.
Except she couldn’t find her story.
While there were lots of narratives involving cancer, Jacinta was looking for a story that involved a young couple involved in a newer – but crucially, established – relationship, who had to navigate the progression of their romance while one of them also went through cancer treatment.
Jacinta Dietrich is a writer and editor who holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her first book, This Is Us Now, was published in 2021 by Grattan Street Press.
In episode 45 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Jacinta talks about fictionalising her story, writing confronting emotions, and telling her partner that the book she’d written based on their relationship was going to be published.
Plus, things go off the rails as we get into a heated and cryptic discussion of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, and also exactly which co-host asked author Lyn Yeowart what she was wearing. (If you’re looking to give James a gift, maybe don’t go with a photo book.)
When she was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease at age 25, one of the many things it meant for Heather was that she’d have to quit skydiving – though not until she’d injured herself trying to hold on the person she was before.
Heather Taylor Johnson is a writer and editor. Born in Minnesota and now living in South Australia, she has written novels and poetry collections, and is the editor of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Westerly, Griffith Review, Island and TEXT. She lives with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.
In episode 41 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, she discusses how more than two decades of living with chronic illness have inspired her writing and led to the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Illness and Chronic Pain.
She also shares Van Gogh’s misdiagnosis with her condition, describes how a year of studying art has changed her writing process, and tells us about her latest book, Rhymes with Hyenas.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability by Jennifer Bartlett (ed) – Prosopagnosia by Sonia Hernandez – No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
Humans are creative creatures. Look at everything we’ve created, from the Eiffel Tower to competitive hot dog eating to this amphibious bicycle.
I’m always bursting with ideas (though none as great as that Floaty the Bubble Bike). And I’m sure you are too – even if you don’t know it.
This has been one of the delights of becoming an author. When I was writing my first book, one of my 8000 worries was that I only had this one idea. What if I wrote the book, and it got published, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to write about?
But learning to write meant, in part, learning to pay attention to my creativity. And the more I paid attention to it, the more I realised the problem wasn’t too few ideas.
It was too many.
Now I have a list of about a dozen ideas for books, some more far-fetched than others. I have ideas for essays scrawled all over the place, and no time to even start them.
More and more research is showing how creativity is a muscle, and that even if our adult selves have been conditioned to tune out our creative impulses, they’re still there. We just need to rebuild them, which basically means to start listening again.
Elizabeth Gilbert has lots of wonderful things to say about this in Big Magic. Do yourself a favour, listen to her narrate the audiobook. She advises having an affair with your creativity – sneak it into your life however you can manage, get excited, let it be joyful.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that creativity is a practice – that means just sitting down and doing it. There’s incredible freedom in that. There’s no right or wrong way to be creative, whether you’re writing or dancing or gardening.
Recently I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with author, Story Room Aus host and positive ageing activist Karen Sander for her podcast, Ageing Fearlessly.
In my work at Writing NSW, I’ve met a lot of people who started writing later in life, often in retirement. They usually say that they always wanted to write, but that they never had the time. I always admire them for finally making time to reconnect with their creative selves.
In my interview with Karen, I talk about the process of developing my writing practice and prioritising creativity, and share tips and resources for doing the same.