Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral misery, work-work balance

Elvis Costello and Stephen Fry: the creative work-work balance


I have a fading newspaper clipping taped to the wall near my computer. It might seem a strange motivational message because the title is “Elvis Costello quits recording Albums”. The article contains a quote that is alarming for those heavily engaged in creative work.

Costello tells music writer Iain Shedden“You can’t spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do. You have to choose.”

Really? But I don’t want to choose! I want to know that when one door opens, there are endless possibilities.

The industrious English singer songwriter was referring to his decision to stop making albums. Shedden says it’s a declaration that reflects the shift in the way that people now consume music. The industry has gone through changes now hitting media and publishing, professions I have called home. Writers are wondering, like Costello and other musicians, how to make a living from what they do.

But while Costello might be chewing over how to go about recording or releasing new material, he hasn’t stopped actually making music, writing songs or collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet.

The market place may shift under you, buckling from the seismic changes wrought by the Internet, but as a creative person you need to keep on producing material.

Be it writing fiction, music, academic articles, whatever, you need to be engaged in creating content. Because no matter what unforeseen changes there will be in the distribution of that content, one thing is for sure. Creative output will always be required.

I am a firm believer in the power of the narrative. Everyone needs a story – businesses, major corporations, politicians and children. They all need to read other people’s stories and have their own story told. And who writes, researches or sets these to music, these stories of our hearts and minds, the threads of our lives and the tentacles that connect us together globally? Writers do this.

The trouble is, creating, and at the same time trying to earn a living, comes at a price. As Costello knows all to well, the work-work balance is a bitch. Can you do everything? It’s a juggle that doesn’t get as much media coverage as the work-life balance. Possibly because there are less people trying to do work-work rather than work-life.

My motto is you can sleep when you’re dead – there’s nothing decent on television anyway. Besides, I believe for creative people, there is no downtime. Everything is an inspiration and everything engages our rapacious curiosity. I am reminded of Stephen Fry, whose latest autobiography The Fry Chronicles  details this restlessness and engagement.

Fry works, works, works. For him, work is more fun than fun. If there is a work-work balance, like me he hasn’t found it. He works like someone is chasing him or he is chasing something. He has a writer’s desire to find out why – why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, and why they create what they create. And that’s because, as he reveals, he finds other people more interesting than himself.

I also find work more fun than fun and prefer spending time around people who push their comfort zones and stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do. I am fortunate in that my work puts me in touch with people who are more interesting than me. Apart from my blogging, fiction writing and the impending deadline to hand in my doctorate, I have a full time job in arts communication working with Australian and international visual artists who never fail to inspire and a weekly evening stint of sessional teaching that sees me nurture focused and driven post graduate creative writing students. I believe we learn from everyone if only we stop to listen.

So then, how do we find time to do all the things we want to do creatively? Well, here is the thing. Alas, Costello is right. You can’t! Sometimes you just have to say no. Just as Costello has decided to say no to making more albums, I have reluctantly said no to several additional projects until the looming doctoral deadline is over in May. The idea that women can “have it all – but not all at once” equally applies to the creative life. I don’t like saying no, but there are priorities.

My mother gave me good advice early on about time management. She graduated from two different universities on the same day so knows a thing or two about the work-work balance. She taught me there are As, Bs and Cs and that they must be shuffled around. If she calls and I’m stressed about a project, she’ll ask “is it an A?” That is – is it a main priority right now? No? Then drop it, and concentrate on the A.

Only you know your personal A, B, and Cs. But I would suggest that in the doctoral journey, while there are periods of intensity that mean your research is the A in your life, there is much to be said for the engagement with other doctoral students over the four or so years. The Bs and Cs are part of the process, too.

Joining reading or writing groups, attending workshops, going to conferences, actually meeting other people and talking about your work – and more importantly, finding out about their work – are all part of your doctorate.

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry says when he was at Cambridge, it was the people at university and those connections he made that were his education. It doesn’t hurt that the roll call included Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

If you are lucky enough to find your creative other half –a collaborator and muse to spur you on, a Hugh Laurie to your Stephen Fry – then never let them go.

And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching, but look in the right places. Get up from your computer, go to a conference, and talk to people. Listen to them. They have the same frustrations about their research, the same anxiety about their ability and the same dreams about their future.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are an introvert. But there are tips you can use. A recent post in The Thesis Whisperer by  Julio Peironcely, a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands, provides good advice about advance preparation for conference attendance and dinners, so you won’t sit there resolutely chewing a bread roll and wishing the ground would consume you before you have to try and make small talk. I highly recommend this post, it may be about science conferences but it applies to everyone, and as a creative writing student I am going to make sure I try all of Julio’s tips before my next conference dinner. A career in journalism means that I always heed to advice to talk less about myself and ask questions and listen to the other person, however, I am pleased Julio deems questions about your new friend’s journey through the infamous valley of shit (the ultimate in doctoral dispair) acceptable for dinner table conversation.

Knowing how to make the most of meeting like-minded people in structure environments like conferences is essential, as the people you want to share your creative world with are unlikely to be found in the pub on the weekend slumped in front of a large screen TV, or dozing like an inert kipper on a tanning bed. For a start, it’s really hard to read – or write – in either of those environments.

Brand Identity, creative writing, Marketing, The Hoff

Unpacking The Hoff: Marketing Your Identity


I was writing this blog in my head even as I stood under the sweaty armpits of two very tall young women, who were giggling and swaying and stomping their alarmingly high heels near me. “Hoff, Hoff, Hoff…” they cried, causing the heat and mild hysteria in The Corner Hotel in Richmond to swell larger than Pamela Anderson’s famed bust.

“Hoff, Hoff, Hoff…” they yelled, along with the capacity crowd of 800. I was out with friends on Valentines Day in Melbourne to see The Hoff. An Evening with THE HOFF (or The Hoff Downunder) is based on a series of performances the former Baywatch star gave at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year.

Apart from the obvious topic of avoidance of my pressing academic work – how does The Hoff fit into a blog about doctoral study, readers may well ask?

I was pondering that as I aimed my phone camera at the tall, chiseled and confident performer weaving his way through the throng and onto the stage. The Hoff beamed, crooned and pushed his way through a crowd who were both the cool “I’m here for an ironic evening” types and also Hoff Nerds (people who really knew every episode of Knight Rider and Baywatch).


They call it the comfort zone for a reason. And I was out of mine. But I have a firm rule, and it has never failed me; when it doubt, take notes. There will be a story in it. And sure enough, by the time The Hoff was on stage in front of me, the topic for the blog was clear. The Hoff is a one-man brand seminar all packaged up and ready to go. This evening was The Hoff Brand in action.

Just as Richard E. Grant has used his persona and fandom from the cult hit Withnail & I to raise his own brand identity as a writer and actor and director, so has The Hoff gone from being simply David Hasselhoff, just another handsome actor from the 1980s, to being The Hoff – a brand. Grant has The REG Temple – The Hoff has HoffSpace, a phone app, Shop The Hoff online, and a bucket load of Twitter followers.

With palpable gratitude, The Hoff told the crowd his moniker had been given to him by Aussie journalists (we love a nickname downunder). Rather than run away from the TV shows and video clips that were the stylistic equivalent of big hair and shoulder pads, The Hoff embraced it with grace, going along with the joke. He owned it.

This brings to mind Kylie Minogue, who also owns what she is and what she has done. She has embraced her brand, and rather than apologize for not being, say Adele, she has made everything that she is – and is not – into an asset. I have heard her say “bring it on” to those who sneer at her career. It could also be The Hoff’s mantra. “Don’t Hassel the Hoff” is emblazoned on his T Shirt. It’s only partly a joke.

In this age of the internet publishing and social media, and the evolving nature of traditional media, those who work with words and ideas need to see themselves as a product. They need to know their brand. Who are they? What is their marketable identity? What is their unique selling point?

Above all, don’t try to be like someone else. If you own your authentic voice, then you can stare down everyone and say “bring it on”.

The Hoff knows. The Hoff is rarely “off brand” and appreciates that he is loved for what he does – and that is not shying away from being commercial. He doesn’t seek acceptance from those who would ignore him anyway and deride him as a light-weight commercial star. He has cleverly seen how his work has deeply resonated with people in popular culture and stayed with that, just like Kylie. Baywatch and Knight Rider? Neighbours and Locomotion? Bring it on!


An Evening With THE HOFF is all about playing up to the brand, and embracing and mythologizing the past.  Television clips showed key cheesy moments from all his shows, all focused on the perfect Hoff frown, grin, pose or action scene. The Hoff always traded on being the man other men wanted to be (tall, chest hair, heck, hair post 60) and the man women wanted to bed – and perhaps the other way around, too. And so The Hoff cleverly brought the Melbourne Storm cheerleaders on stage to dance, jiggle and add movement. The Hoff plays a “gosh, ain’t life different from what we guys could say in the 80s?” style of “new male”. After all – he’s a proud dad! He has a very young Welsh girlfriend he cares about! He’s not in the shape he was, but he tries!


The Hoff’s take on that Aussie classic from the 1970s – The Ted Mulry Gang’s “Jump In My Car”, is funny precisely because it doesn’t try to consciously recreate the swaggering machismo and bravado of the era. It has none of the predatory overtones of the original. The Hoff’s version is a fitting ode to 21st century male narcissism. One doesn’t imagine The Hoff would seduce anyone he’d pick up in that car – rather he’d ask to borrow the woman’s tube of fake tan instead. This is the man who put the hair product back into the term “metrosexual”. The Storm cheerleaders add to the fakery, the ironic self-reflective laugh The Hoff has before you. But – hey – you are paying to see this show, so who has the last laugh? Business, after all, is never ironic.

There is a revealing moment about The Hoff’s use of positive visualization. He said that when he auditioned for the lead of the Knight Rider, he was so determined to get the part he imagined he already had it. He changed the message on his answering machine to that of the character’s persona. He told everyone he had got the part.

He rang up his father and said “Dad, I’ve been offered the most wonderful role. It’s in a show about – a talking car.” Bring it on! The Hoff lived as if he had the part. He was that character. He inhabited the role. And he got it. That’s the lesson from The Hoff – own who you are (then flog it – creatives need to pay the rent too).

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, Uncategorized

The doctoral student’s guide to distracted parenting

IMG_3307It’s the fodder of the Sunday papers. It goes by the name “helicopter parenting”, “hyper mothering” or “over vigilance”. Call it what you like, I’ll call it too much time on your hands. And there is a cure. Do a doctorate.

Yes, if you decide to take a minimum of four years out of your life for higher study whilst raising children, I can guarantee that you’ll have the kind of “let them fend for themselves” attitude that is supposed to build a child’s resilience and self-esteem.

I speak from experience. Simply be too busy to go the extra mile, and you’ll have praise showered upon you as your children develop reserves of inner strength, imagination and (best of all) cooking and other “life” skills. They will never utter those words “I am bored” because they know that you, too-busy doctoral mother, will retort “I don’t care – I have a deadline!”

Years ago I met a young woman at a conference who told me that when her mother was doing her doctorate, everything was reasonably okay until the final stretch. That’s when her mother started buying appliances that turned themselves off.

How I laughed. Oh, back then I was a stay-at-home mother, freelancing, consulting and doing my Masters. Sure. I had two kids, but what did I know? The pressure of a PhD is vastly different to an MA. Then add working full time as well as studying – and it’s easy to see how those elaborate birthday cakes and over-the-top children’s parties have become a thing of the past, cosigned to the sort of hazy nostalgic memories that Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones had about Hailsham boarding school in Never Le Me Go.

So, from one mother who did it all (and over did it), to the mother who takes every short cut in the book and then some, here is my Cheat Sheet for any other doctoral student and mum out there.

10 Tips for Mothering and Studying

1. It’s all about timing

My number one tip is don’t try to do “brain work” when you just get home from work and the kids demand your attention. Now is the time for multi-tasking, and by that I mean doing “brain dead” busy work like the essential housework. Again, never waste your time doing housework when the kids are preoccupied or out of the house. Use your time wisely. And be ruthless with your time. Tell the kids “now is not the time”, or “I have no time for that” or “my time is running out – I am on a deadline”. Set firm bedtimes for the kids and relish a quiet house and thinking time. Military style discipline is the only way.

2. They will send reminder notices

Schools are used to slack parents. You are not slack but distracted. Don’t worry, the notice will come out again, and other mums will call to ask if you got the invitation to their kid’s party. Everyone wants to get the numbers, it’s like politics.

3. Be selfish

  • Men are very good at this, women – especially mothers – not so much. Some people think I am a monster because I refuse to let my kids into my study without permission. They are never allowed to touch my computer (unless I need IT support) and when they were toddlers, I locked myself in and ignored their pounding little fists on the door as my parents babysat. Stop being so available to your children, carve out time for yourself, and demand they find something to do while you are working. Remember you need to parent for independence and resilience. And finish your PhD.

4. Never (EVER) volunteer.

There are always trophy wives and earnest mums with nothing better to do than suck up to the school, teacher, or your friends. Let them go for it. You cannot afford to compete, much less be actually seen at school unless it is crucial. For instance, has your child been hit? Hit someone? Won a prize? Or about to be thrown out for incompetence? If none of these apply to your darling, then you do not need to set foot in the school. And please, if they ask for a cake for a bake sale, send money instead. My mother did this when I was growing up. I learned from the best. Remember, hyper-parenting leads to volunteering. And frankly, no kid really wants to see mum at school. You are fooling yourself if you think they do. Also, it should go without saying that you never volunteer to have children for a sleepover. Especially if they are what is called “challenging”. Avoid at all costs. Sudden boats of gastro will keep any suggestions at bay.

  • 5. You can have it all but not all at once

Only do what is absolutely necessary when it comes to housework and cooking. Now is not the time to be a domestic goddess. Now is the time to survive. Ditto yoga classes, the downward dog can wait. Do enough exercise so you remain healthy, but let’s face it, when the final lap comes around and you have months before handing in, everything goes to seed while you study. Every marathon runner limps to the end. On the mother-front, remember, for that reason, there is nothing wrong with rotating the same two or three meals throughout the week. If the kids get bored, let them cook.

  • 6. Be realistic

You are not attempting to get a Nobel Prize. You are doing a PhD. Put it in perspective.  You are pushing knowledge a little way, standing on the shoulders of others. You don’t have to start your research from scratch. Likewise, you do not have to start dinner from scratch – buy vegetables pre chopped. If you socialize, don’t offer to bring food – bring wine and expensive chocolate instead.

  • 7. Embrace caffeine

In all its forms, caffeine is the boost you need to zoom through the day and the night. You are not an Olympic athlete whose urine is going to be tested for banned substances, so have a coffee, and the another. But know your limits. I tried one of those energy drinks once and felt so sick I’d never do it again. It’s a bit like fake tan, really. You have to know when to stop. For the same reason you drink coffee, never let your children near it, even if they are teenagers. Children need to be in bed at night – early – so you can study. The words “children” and “stimulants” should never be used in the same sentence, not if you value your sanity.

  • 8. Never Give Up

A friend gave me this advice when I was starting out on the doctoral journey and seriously contemplating giving up as domestic life got complicated. “Keep at it with a terrier-like disposition. Of course, whether it is a doctorate, a thesis, a piece of work, see it for what it is: an investigation, an effort at pushing the envelope. For that very reason, you should not give it up.” I have had this taped to my study door for the past four years. It has become my mantra.

  • 9. Everything Can Be Bought At the Supermarket

Now is not the time for Farmers’ Markets. Don’t be creative, adventurous or interesting. Forget those home made cakes, and thoughtfully chosen gifts for the endless birthday parties your primary school child gets invited to.

Shop your supermarket. Look at the gift cards. What child doesn’t want plastic voucher for something? While you are at it, you can pick up the milk you forgot and the bread for the lunches. When it comes to birthday cards, go to a discount shop once a year and buy in bulk generic cards (ones with puppies are gender neutral). They have cheap gift wrap, too. If you buy silver, it will also do for Christmas.

10. Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones, there is only one goal – to complete

Yes, procrastination can be good. This is brain dead fallow time, or sheer bloody exhaustion time, when you have done an all-nighter (a lot harder after age 40 than when you were a fresh faced undergraduate, especially if kid is sick or needs to be at the sports complex by 6 am). But don’t confuse sorting the sock drawer and sorting the deep freeze with anything other than an avoidance of doctoral work. The endless domestic tasks that make up motherhood will all be there when you complete. The dust will just be thicker.

 A final thought

Remember – you lead by example. The frustrations, hard work, false starts and dead ends and the sheer determination to see the doctorate through to completion will teach your kids more about what it takes to succeed than all the outings to the museum and bushwalks that you missed taking them to. Also, remember that 95 % of any social outings that you engage in should be child centered. It’s really a lot of fun boring everyone at school functions and scout events by speaking about your doctoral research.

The other 5 % of social functions should be university centered, and there you can bore your fellow students with stories about your children. After all, what else do you have to talk about?

 * No children were harmed in the writing of this blog. 

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, The Island Of Doctor Moreau

The Horror, the horror: When your research gives you nightmares


I don’t want to analyze my nightmares as they can be so horrible. No surprise, really, considering the steady diet of horror fiction I am consuming. Then again, at least I can take comfort in the thought that the bleakness I envelop myself in isn’t real – yet.

That’s the thing about science fiction and horror. It’s as damn well close to real as the long shadows of the past lapping at our memories, or stark reminders of the suffering all around us.

I have just written a blog “The lust that dare not speak its name” for the website Online Opinion about the German parliament’s decision to criminalize “using an animal for personal sexual activities” and to punish offenders with fines up to $34,000. My research took me into Zoophilia’s surprisingly long history and cultural representation – especially in science fiction. This is quite confronting.

Studying the past, and its particularly horrific events, can give doctoral students nightmares. An author told me that spending years working on a doctoral dissertation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (described as “a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust” ) wasn’t the best thing he could have done for his mental health. It made him depressed. In fact, if he had his time again, he’d choose something else. Maybe comedy.

No one who has studied Austerlitz comes away unchanged.  It tells the story of a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939. In war, so much is lost, erased, forgotten, displaced. Of course, it’s not a happy book.

Examining the near future can be equally as bleak, at least if you take my extensive SF DVD and fiction collection as a starting point. It’s dystopia all the way. Even Danny Boyle’s SF movie Sunshine, while offering a ray of hope for the planet’s future, comes at the price of sacrifice. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A case in point is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. Here there is no such thing as a free life. The clones – humans born and raised to be live organ donors – accept their fate. They must die so that others may live. They have no agency, and as the story unfolds, the reader sees their entire lives are based on the lies they have been fed to keep them pliable and acquiescent.

The clones are human “monsters” created by science (despite the fact that it is society that is the collective monster in breeding clones for this unspeakable fate). The clones are a reverse version if you like of Frankenstein’s creature; a constructed living body that will be carved up until death. The creature was brought to life from the scraps of flesh from charnel houses; it’s to the mortuary the clones will go when they “complete”. This is Ishiguro’s chilling euphemism for giving everything to the greater power.

The one very liberating thing about studying the human-animal hybrid’s lifecycle is that this monster really does like to take its revenge. There is no clone acceptance of destiny for the snake woman of Jennifer Lynch’s incredible 2009 horror film Hisss 

Ditto the biotech monster Dren’s act of defiance in killing her father and raping her mother after she changes gender at the end of the 2009 movie Splice

Even Edward Prendick had to escape from HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, “for fear of the Beast Monsters”.

In some ways, it’s hard not to cheer the hybrid on, because they are treated so badly. Ever since Frankenstein’s creature was run out of town by the peasants unable to accept his abject monstrosity the hybrid in science fiction has been reviled and hunted.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the agony of the monster’s journey. And that’s what makes the research difficult. I discovered there’s a good reason I feel this way, and why my supervisor felt so depressed at the end of his marathon run. It’s also why people have been blogging about how depressed they feel after watching the movie Les Misérables.

There is actually a good reason for this misery – with Les Mis and the monsters I have been studying. In “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis”, published in the 2011 journal Psychological Science, authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo,, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, found that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Too bad if that world is one horrible, dystopian cesspit.

Narratives help us learn life lessons we couldn’t possibly acquire from experience. Hence the importance of story-telling in cultures. Yet while there is hope and humor in Dr Who and Star Trek, the same can’t be said for the books and films I am studying. Nothing, except the oblivion of death, awaits the hybrid.  For these scientifically created human monsters, it’s a short, brutal time filled with alienation, pain and misery. A bit like sitting through nearly three hours of Les Mis.

Sometimes, carrying around a fictional character’s pain and isolation is too much. That’s why I am becoming a bit concerned about my teenage son’s interest in my DVD collection

As part of my doctoral research, I have acquired a vast research library that he finds fascinating – as do his mates. He’s very popular when friends come for a sleep over. A tentative knock on my study door as I am writing away on a Saturday night will reveal a group of boys and the question, “Mum, can we borrow some of your research material?”

For, as well as the usual amount of books, photocopied parts of books, downloaded journal papers and print outs from every draft of my research, I have a vast selection of truly horrible, compelling, horror and science fiction films.

Research can be lonely, so it’s nice to get feedback from my avid teen audience. “That Japanese version of The Eye –  where the woman gets the transplanted eyes of a murder victim – it’s just – OMG! Revolting. I mean, really revolting.”

Or “My mate says that The Fly is the most disgusting film he’s seen, especially where the scientist totally likes turns into a fly and his jaw drops off and he like puts all the bits of himself that are still human into jars into the bathroom cabinet…”

I have yet to receive angry calls from parents about corrupting their children with Gothic horror, but I am waiting (I don’t allow them to watch my R rated horror). I can at least say I have fostered the idea that academia is really cool. Whether university will live up to expectations is another matter.

I guess that depends on whether they can come up with some hottie research topic of their own.

creative writing, Creativity

Life Lessons from Keith Richards: Writers Take Note

Keith Richards

Ever since I spent a joyous summer reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life (2010), I have wanted to write about the way he views creativity.

Anything penned by a man (teamed with writer James Fox) who spends his money on a fabulous library, and actually reads books and expressed a secret desire to be a librarian has to be worth reading. Life doesn’t disappoint.

Okay, so there is a certain glee in trawling through the salacious bits, but I am not here to wax lyrical about the Rolling Stone’s musing on Jagger’s todger, Altamont, Marianne Faithfull or his long intimacy with hard drugs. Read his book for that.

What I, as a writer, found fascinating was the way Keith describes the creative process, and how he makes music and writes songs. Alas, like Stephen Fry, who reveals his great frustration about his inability to sing in his autobiographies, I also have no musical ability whatsoever.

Not everyone can be a rock star. But Keith’s sheer delight in making music, and his obsessive quest to do so – making sure he never did so many drugs that it would harm his talent or output (that’s discipline and respect for one’s talent) – is something that can be applied to creative writing.

So often I hear in academia the following moan – writing is so hard, it is so laborious, and anyway I don’t have time to write, where do you find the time to write? Let alone read – who has time to read anymore? I have administration to do, marking to do, and so much teaching, then there are the papers for academic journals…and so on.

In response, here are some inspirational highlights from Keith Richard’s weighty tome Life, applied to the writing life (hence, the sub headings are my own):

Keith on: creative passion

“I was basically a musical sponge. And I was just fascinated by watching people play music. If they were in the street I’d gravitate towards it, a piano player in the pub, whatever it was. My ears were picking it up note for note. Didn’t matter if it was out of tune, there were notes happening, there were rhythms and harmonies, and they would start zooming in my ears. It was very like a drug. In fact a bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn’t kick music.” (p. 57)

I know many writers who feel the same. For us, writing is a drug and we can’t kick it. Reading is the same. I have so many books on the go – I keep them in different places all over the house, and my bag has to be big enough for a book. There is always the fear of being caught short without anything to read. Writing is the same, my friends see me take out a small notebook and jot down ideas. It’s something of a joke. “Oh – here comes the notebook!” I am a writer and no one is safe. “That’s very interesting, I’ll just write that down,” and  I grab a quote, a funny story, a word. Writers are magpies, swooping in on the brightly colored bits of life that float around.

Keith on: putting in the hours

“Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how those blues were made. You collapsed on the floor with a guitar in your hands. That was it. You never stop learning an instrument, but at that time it was still very much searching about.” (p.103)

I immediately recall Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He reveals that in order to master anything, you need to put in the time, and you must keep putting in the time.  A friend of mine is a violinist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was telling me about playing a new work; “well you know how it is when you put the violin under your chin and raise your arms and the fingers just start, the muscle memory kicks in, because you have done this for so many hours, over years and years”. Ah – no. But I do know about training your eye to observe and draw, and about training the ear to listen to the way people speak and then spending years using those rhythms and dialogue in fiction. Learning academic language is similar – it’s endless observation, building that vocabulary. As Keith says “searching about, finding out how it is made.”

Keith on: “write what you know”

“There’s nothing bad about monotony; everyone’s got to live with it.” (105)

Well, I chose this phrase because I like it. But Keith wasn’t referring to suburban life, actually. He was talking about a Jimmy Reed song title – Take Out Some Insurance. Finding titles anywhere, inspiration everywhere, even in the mundane. A writer can make anything interesting – it’s just what you do with the material. You’ve heard it before, write what you know. But I am writing from the perspective of a human-animal in my novel Almost Human….so, I take something I know, and spin it into the unknown.

As an Australian of Greek and German parentage, I know what it is like to be surrounded by people – family – and not know how to speak the same language. I never had a meaningful conversation with my grandmother as we couldn’t communicate. I take that experience of being a hybrid and an outsider with me into my writing. Write what you know doesn’t mean only writing what you know. Stretch it, play around with it. Find the emotion in the experience. As Keith says, who’d think of Take Out Some Insurance as a song title?

Keith on: overcoming writer’s block

“Once you’ve got that idea, the rest of it will come. It’s like you’ve planted a seed, then you go and water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground and goes, hey, look at me. The mood is made somewhere in the song. Regret, lost love. Maybe one of us had busted up with a girlfriend. If you can find the trigger that kicks off the idea, the rest of it is easy. It’s just hitting the first spark. Where that comes from, God knows.” (143)

As Pablo Picasso observed, “when inspiration comes, I want it to find me working.” You don’t hang around waiting for the muse, you just start, and it flows from there. Even if you hate what you start with, you can at least have something to play with. The worst thing is the critical brain and the blank screen. The critical brain edits – let the unconscious brain create. Just do it.

Keith on: making the time

“Songwriting had to be fitted in. After a show was sometimes the only time.” (143) 

Even rockers have to find time. It’s not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. You have to have some discipline. Take note. “After a show” is the rocker’s “after work.” So find the time. Do the writing after work.

Keith on: inspiration

“The thing about being a songwriter is, even if you’ve been fucked over, you can find consolation in writing about it, and pour it out. Everything has something to do with something: nothing is divorced.” (187)

As Nora Ephron says, everything is copy. You have to feel if you are going to write from the heart. Every emotion can be used, every experience. Embrace life, open yourself up to people, to pain and to love. You can do this from the corner of your world, but not in the isolation of your garret.

Keith on: fluency

“And because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this cord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on.” (183)

Musicians play, writers write. Just get in the habit of doing it every day. It’s like any exercise, if you skip a day, everything hurts when you start again.

Keith on: experimentation

“When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it’s not a matter of sheer force; it’s always a matter of experiment and playing around.” (236)

Where is the joy in doing the same thing over and over when it comes to your writing? Experiment with voice, with style. Have fun. The great liberation about a lot of writing is that it makes very little money. Support yourself doing something else and take risks in your art.

Keith on: Writing from the heart

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of the bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab in the heart. Sometimes I think that song writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”(277-279)

This is beautiful. I think that for anyone doing a PhD in creative writing, as I am, it is easy to get caught up in dry, academic writing.  Where is the passion, the lilt, the zing, the spark, the thread that runs through all of us? The best bit of advice I was given when writing my MA exegesis was by one of my teachers, the writer Antoni Jach. He said “you are a writer, make the exegesis sing, make it beautiful.” I know I have to keep this in mind with the PhD exegesis. And in my novel, I must remember the heart.

It goes back to everything that Keith has said, really – you have to have a love of the work you are doing, a passion, and go back to the well so often you dream about the music or the words, and you are in the flow, the moment, and everything makes a connection.

Keith on: why bother? (from the Keith Richards Life website)

“People say who don’t you give it up? I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

That’s it really, isn’t it? Don’t ask for permission, don’t ask for money, don’t plead lack of time. Whatever your creative passion, do it for yourself.