To the Lighthouse: Week 6

I’ve printed off the first draft of my novel and here it is! Today I’m up at the lighthouse reading it. Is it any good? No, it’s a first draft!

Although the writing needs work – a lot of work – and there are more scenes to write, characters to develop further, and ideas to whittle down to a sharp point, there’s a story here.

One of the things that struck me during the reading is that the issues it tackles of racism, gender imbalance and human relationships are as relevant today as they were in 1900 when the novel is set.

I watch a yacht heading out of the harbour and it makes me sad. My residency at the lighthouse is over when this afternoon I walk down the hill and back along the pier. But like the yacht, my novel’s on its way. There’ll be rough seas ahead, and we’ll be becalmed at times, but my residency here at the lighthouse provided a safe and inspiriting harbour I’m very grateful for.

Posted in Arts, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

To the Lighthouse: Week 5

Only one week left of my residency! It’s gone impossibly fast. People have asked me how they can apply for a residency. Here’s the link to Lighthouse Arts where you’ll find all the info you need.

Karen Croft, the Director of Lighthouse Arts, is passionate about the project. She’s seen how this unique setting has influenced the artists’ creative practice. The walk to the Lighthouse is like a ritual, she says. You leave the city chaos behind as you cross the pier and climb up into a space where the only sound is the breath of the sea.

In planning the space, the Lighthouse team has consciously adapted the cottages to reflect this contrast. Two cottages provide quiet spaces to work and a third is a noisy communal space where there’s conversations about collaborations, creative practices and a sense of concentrated community.

Artists come for different reasons, Karen says. Some have busy noisy lives and treasure the opportunity to seclude themselves away. Others normally work in isolation and crave a sense of connection. The residencies cater for both these possibilities. I need the quiet to write, but I also treasure the little interactions on my ‘walks’, and the camaraderie with whoever has lunch when I do.

Although only the artists-in-residence can enjoy the Lighthouse during the week, it’s open to the public at weekends. There are live events, an Arts Trading Store and exhibitions. In the community cottage I snuck through the current exhibition, an amazing photographic exhibition called Flow, all about water, from the WH!P Collective (Women of the Hunter in Photography). It’s open from 4th December, Saturday and Sunday until 20 Feb 2022. Booking are free but essential due to Covid restrictions and tickets are available here.

Supporting a culture of creativity is essential for NSW to succeed, but for culture to truly flourish it needs a home, places where it can be created, shared and enjoyed.”

NSW Government Cultural Infrastructure Plan

At Nobbys-Whibayganba Headland, Newcastle, NSW, Lighthouse Arts has brilliantly adapted and reused existing buildings, in light of the Cultural Infrastructure Plan, to develop a perfect home for creativity to flourish. I can testify to that!

Posted in Arts, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To the Lighthouse: Week 4

Lighthouse cottages – my studio is the 1st window 2nd cottage from right

Writing is, in the main, a solitary pursuit, but there’s something about being up at the lighthouse, each creative artist in our separate studios, working together but apart, that gives us both a sense of creative community and the quiet space to write.

During Covid lockdowns my life wasn’t all that different to the way it usually was. I spend most days alone, writing, anyway. It’s no surprise that introverted writers often fared a little better during the isolation than their gregarious extroverted friends. For me, it spurred on 100,000 words of the first draft of my novel. For a short story writer that’s a staggering feat.

I asked Catherine Moffat, an award winning author and fellow artist-in-residence at the lighthouse, how she coped during that time. It was a perfect excuse to shut myself away, she said. There was no pressure during lockdown to do anything but write. While being with people is great, it’s often at the expense of writing time.

Catherine Moffat

And there’s the rub. Despite all the stereotypical lonely-artist-starving-in-garret myths, writers need people, too. Catherine connected with others who had common interests during her uni days in creative writing courses, and later in writing groups with the Hunter Writers’ Centre and through a grant she received from Orana Arts Program.

I asked her why it was important for her to be part of these communities and here’s what she said. They’re where she finds validation, and they motivate her to approach her work with rigour, to produce more and to make it the best it can be. They also give her the impetus to complete those story she often leaves half-finished, and to set and keep deadlines. And there’s the benefit of getting constructive feedback, and sharing the achievements, successes, and also the commiserations, with people who understand what its like to lead a writing life.

During Iso Catherine also connected with fellow writers online and through Zoom calls. With writers’ talks and writers’ festival sessions going online, it opened up events she’d never had access to in the past. Many of those conversations are still accessible online and on YouTube. Although nothing compares with being part of a live audience, you still feel part of the writing community.

How do you know when you’ve found your tribe, I asked her?

“They’re the people whose eyes don’t roll back in their heads when I start talking about writing.”

One morning at the lighthouse I’d spent half an hour trying to remember the word for that thing you attach to a piping bag to squeeze out biscuit dough stars. My character had one. At lunch, I asked the others what it was called. ‘Nozzle!’ they chorused. I didn’t have to explain why I asked. They knew. No-one’s eyes rolled back.

At the lighthouse, I am with my tribe.

Posted in Arts, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

To the Lighthouse: Week 3

Dredging up Ideas

I spent a lot of time in the morning looking out of my window. If I hadn’t been so stuck with the next scene of my novel, I wouldn’t have noticed how many times the dredge left the harbour. It just kept on going, digging up tonnes of material, dumping it out at sea, and then coming back for more. Unlike me, who was going nowhere.

So I took inspiration from the dredge’s persistence. I burrowed into what I had already written, looking for anything that was still a bit general, and I asked myself ‘why’. ‘Why’ is my protagonist in a meditation group? ‘Why’ is she a photographer? ‘Why’ does she hate action movies so passionately?

All the answers to these ‘whys’ were in her past. And weirdly, the deeper I dug into the specifics of her past, the clearer my protagonist’s future became. What evolved wasn’t so much a character bio but a series of past events that were directly related to the present, and these sparked the future events I now can’t wait to write.

I didn’t notice the dredge at all in the afternoon. So if you get to a point in your novel where you’re stuck, try going backwards. And forwards, and backwards, and forwards, and…

Posted in Arts, Writing, writing process | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

To the Lighthouse: Week 2

“Lily stepped back to get her canvas – so – into perspective. It was an odd road to be walking, this of painting. Out and out one went, further and further, until at last one seemed to be on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea.”

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Since I’ve started my residency up here at the lighthouse, I’ve been rereading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I don’t really need an excuse, it’s in my top ten books, along with Marion Halligan’s Spidercup and Laurence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.

I took one of those ‘thinking walks’ writers tend to favour: setting myself a question about a writing problem, then leaving it to meander through my mind solving itself, while I walked, observing everything and nothing around me.

For a while I stood here with the lighthouse behind me and the vast empty ocean in front. But then I noticed the sea wasn’t empty. Container ships that looked like tiny caterpillars were balancing along the rim of the sea. And closer there was the whitewash that inconsiderately gave away the secret hiding place of reefs. And the water was all shades of blue and green with lines drawn by currents, tide, sand and depth.

I walked further around the lighthouse and looked out along the narrow breakwater. Three tug boats waited at the mouth of the harbour for a coal ship. Waited for it to come to them.

When at last it came, the sailors threw down ropes and the tugs grabbed hold and fastened them tight.

I was already writing at my desk when the boats passed my window, the tugs escorting the ship down the narrow channel and into its berth, as I steered a clear path through the problem in my novel.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

To the Lighthouse: as an artist-in-residence

To the Lighthouse

Nobbys Breakwall

The sky threatened rain and the walk along the breakwater to the lighthouse, lugging all the things I’d need for the day including my computer, suddenly seemed a lot longer.

Nobbys Lighthouse is on an island in the mouth of the Hunter River, named Whibayganba by First Nations Peoples, and was established in its present form in 1854. A causeway joins it to the mainland. Walking on the breakwater means you’re walking on shipwrecks, convict labour, Awakabal dreaming, a long past.

LighthouseArts director, Karen, unlocked the gate for us Tuesday artists-in-residence (writers, a photographer, musicians) and drove all our paraphernalia up the hill in a little golf cart.

Looking South

It’s a 360 degree view from up there!

East: wide sky and open ocean to the horizon.

North: a sand stretch of coastline and distant hills, the remains of a volcano.

West: a busy harbour and port.

South: the inner city of Newcastle and the Cathedral looking down on it from the hill.

I was a little worried I’d be too distracted by the view to write much.

My studio looked west over the harbour and also onto the courtyard and Nobbys Head Light. The studios are the rooms in two cottages that used to house the lighthouse keeper and workers. The creatives each have a room and every studio has a different view. A writer who looks over a white painted brick wall and out to the sea and sky told me it makes her think she’s in Greece.

The view onto the harbour from my desk
Nobbys Head Light

I started writing. From my desk I saw the dark clouds clear and I kept writing. The air was still and warm, and the only sounds were the waves breaking on the beach below, faint guitars, and the occasional F35 from Williamtown Air Base. I continued to write.

There’s a strange feeling up there that’s hard to put into words. It’s like being cossetted under a warm doona and at the same time floating free in the universe. I know they’re diametrically opposed positions, but one thing they have in common is that neither are concerned about time. There’s only the present. Perhaps it’s what some people call ‘being in the flow’, or others call meditation. Whatever you call it, the closest I can come to describing it is that infinite space where there’s no separation between being in the world and being in the writing. That’s the magic. Maybe you will have a better go at describing it. Let me know.

What writer doesn’t dream of discussing life, the universe and writing with other creative people? The ranges and experiences of the artists I met in the common areas were awe-inspiring. Everyone had a real respect and understanding for the creative practice and the need for quiet and privacy. A true blessing.

While I didn’t keep time, others had to, so at 4pm I reluctantly packed up and walked back down the hill, along the breakwater and into my life.

Until next Tuesday.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Writers’ Festival Gems

Every writers’ festival has its own personality.

sydney writers festival

Sydney Writers Festival

Sydney Writers Festival is big, brash and busy. The speakers are the top of the literary game nationally and internationally, as well as including promising new authors. But it’s so huge now you can wait in line for 45 minutes in all weather (I’ve had blazing sun and driving rain) and still not get in. Many people only go to the ticketed events because getting into free sessions is just too frustrating.


Melbourne Writers Festival


Melbourne Writers Festival is smaller and much more civilised. They also attract the top liners and the free sessions are easy to get into. There’s also this quaint caravan where you sit inside with a small group of others and get close and personal with a writer for a chat.


Edinburgh Writers Festival


Edinburgh Writers Festival. Ahh… more like Melbourne but when writers like Will Self, Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright live just a stone’s throw away you can fill all the tents with the Masters.


Newcastle Writers Festival


Newcastle is a relative newcomer. But this year’s line up was impressive – Robert Dessaix, Kitty Flanagan, Robert Drewe, Kathryn Heyman, Michael Sala, Ryan O’Neill, Jock Serong, Jimmy Barnes, among others. But what stands out at Newcastle, more than anywhere else I’ve been, is the warm friendliness of the volunteers and the relaxed and easy navigation around sessions. It’s a pleasure to be there.

Many things are said at festivals that are worth noting. What resonated most powerfully for me this year in Newcastle was said in a panel discussing what fiction is for:

If you open readers’ hearts,lia1 you open their minds. Lia Hills

The latest Newcastle Festival Newsletter provides more highlights:

I like to put Australia on the slab and see how it is operating. Robert Drewe

I’m encouraged by young people, who are much better at looking after the world than we are. Bruce Pascoe

This city has magic in it and I’m grateful that my first ever visit was for the love of words. Holly Ringland

Women like Elizabeth Macquarie and Caroline Chisholm can teach us to encourage a politics of caring for those in need. Luke Slattery

There’s a cone of silence around Aboriginal massacres on the colonial frontier that needs to be challenged and taken down. Lyndall Ryan

brigWe’ve unnecessarily complicated what is good for us. Brigid Delaney

Wellness is about self-education, it’s not supposed to be an alternative science or medicine, but that’s the way it’s progressed. Nick Toscano

Enid Blyton was an impossible woman but she made me the man I am today. Robert Dessaix

Know your rights and collect your sisterhood and supporters before you speak out. I’m a great believer in collective power. Tracey Spicer

My whole career has been pure luck. Kitty Flanagan

If you stand very still and listen very closely, stories come right up to you. Richard Fidler

Reading should be therapy for the reader. Kathryn Heyman
For satire to work, it must be targeted at the powerful. Ryan O’Neill

Living for years in a female body was like trying to play an instrument that was out of tune. Eddie Ayres

We have an electronic curtain descending between nature and the next generation. Charles Massy

Next year the Newcastle Writers Festival will be April 5-7. Save the date!

Posted in Books, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Newcastle Writers Festival


April 6-8, 2018 

Newcastle Writers Festival is becoming one of the most dynamic and friendly festivals in Australia for both writers and readers. It attracts big names in the world of writing and ideas: Robert Drewe, Jimmy Barnes, Kitty Flanagan, Michael Rowbotham, Robert Dessaix, Michael Sala, Tracey Spicer, to name just a few. Full program is available here.

One of the most popular sessions each year is run by a local writing group, Hunter Story Creators, and is always full of practical and helpful advice about writing. This year they’re teasing out the question of how to give your stories a future by bringing them to life.

Jessie Ansons will be talking to Aidan Walsh, Maree Gallop and Sally Egan about their published stories and novel. Further details are available on their blog.

GIVE YOUR STORIES A FUTURE: Sunday 8th April, 10am – Newcastle Writers Festival – FREE session


Posted in Newcastle Writers Festival, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Generating Writing Ideas

200 word story books

Some of my favourite books that inspired my stories

One of the questions writers are asked most often is, where do you get your ideas?

At the Newcastle Writers’ Festival I went to a great session on Microfiction where author Susan McCreery talked about her New Year’s resolution to write a 200 word story a day for the year 2015. And that’s what she did. Just imagine – 365 stories in one year! Sloopholespineless Wonders published over 30 of them in a gem of a microfiction collection called Loopholes.

I don’t know how she kept generating new ideas every day, but the thought of gradually building up a collection in this way excited me. What’s 200 words? Bah, nothing! But instead of an anxiously-long 12 months I would do it for 30 days – after all it only takes 21 days to create a habit so who knows what could happen.

Then I got this idea! What if every day I took one of my favourite books from the shelf or a short story I love, opened a page at random and selected a phrase, a paragraph, or a concept, or even some interesting thought the reading triggered, and wrote 200 words inspired by it? It could be like a little conversation with the authors I love. I immediately knew what my first book was going to be: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.

That night a friend posted on Facebook that she had been given a book containing 365 daily writing exercises. So she was going to start doing a short piece of writing every day and wondered if anyone would like to join her. How’s that for serendipity!

But I was so looking forward to re-connecting with Virginia Woolf and my other old friends that I stuck to my original idea.

I’m now up to Day 17.

There have been so many unexpected pleasures. The pleasure of running my finger along the shelf and rediscovering books I had forgotten. The anticipation of opening it up and finding a perfect treasure. Of getting lost in the reading and remembering why I loved it in the first place. It didn’t take me long to realise that if I chose my book first thing in the morning I could let the little morsel I discovered bubble away at the back of my mind and when I sat down to write my words flowed faster and easier.

One morning I didn’t choose a book. My husband sent a text message that gave me such a brilliant idea I used that instead. I’ve always gone with “write where the excitement is” so for Day 8 a text inspired my 200 word story. It only came out at 100 words. Writing rules are guidelines only, right? But Day 11’s story finished at 1000 words so you can see there’s lots of flexibility here. Whatever gets you writing…

So do I have 17 brilliant stories? Of course not. I wrote them in 20 minutes. But what I do have are a handful of delicate buds that with work and nurturing might blossom into something fine.

It occurred to me that I might be in my own short story writer’s version of NaNoWriMo. DaShoStoWri? (Daily Short Story Writing) Nah, doesn’t really have the same ring.

Why don’t you give it a go, too? Now! Daily! And no need to wait for November.

IMG_9769 (2)

Posted in Books, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Lose the writing doubts


A writer friend asked me if I would be her accountability partner. She has nearly completed her “autobiographical novel,” a beautifully crafted, honest and moving story of love, belonging and tragedy. She now rings me every Friday, and for half an hour she tells me what she has achieved for that week and what she plans to do for the next.

The first week she was beset by doubts about whether what she was doing was worthwhile. She was very contrite because she hadn’t done any actual writing. But she had achieved huge breakthroughs in her thinking, made inspired connections and links in her material, and gained a greater understanding of what her latest draft meant. I couldn’t believe she was even questioning the value of this week’s work, or her ability to do something with it.

And in listening to her I suddenly realised it’s been over a year since I felt that crippling doubt about whether what I was writing was any good, if I was wasting my time, if my writing was self-indulgent, or worthwhile. After we hung up I wondered why I didn’t feel like this anymore.

One night, nearly 2 years ago, I was reading a “tips from writers” article and I came across a writer – I think it was Neil Gaimon – who only had three words of advice, “JUST DO IT.” Now I’d seen that advice many times before but I think this time I was so frustrated and annoyed with my continually crippling state of anguish that the message finally hit me.

About the same time, I heard a conversation between Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. Cameron said that writing is like wearing loose pyjamas.


Billie Dove

I’ve written about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t go into details now. You can look it up here. What it offered was a way of writing that was casual and carefree, without the crippling expectation of producing something of value and worthiness.

So I JUST DID IT. I wrote for fun, pushed away the doubts, and had no aim to produce anything worth publishing. I just wrote. And I loved it!

And the funny thing was my stories started to finish themselves instead of lying in folders waiting for the final revision. And when I sent them off – filing them in competition and publishers’ piles instead of my drawers – some of them won awards, and others found publishers. And of course, that’s a huge motivator.

But so was learning that the most prolific writers, the ones who produce the largest quantity of good writing, are also the ones who produce the largest amount of poor writing.

Perhaps I had to go through that self-doubt stage to reach this next one. It’s not that I don’t have doubts anymore, it’s more that they don’t get in the way. I can now ignore the crippling personal doubts and concentrate on the doubts about my work. They’re usually pointers to the problems in my story, and are invaluable.

So that’s what I told my friend: wear loose pyjamas and JUST DO IT.

I hope she still rings me next week…

Posted in Writing, writing process | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments