• Hayley McGrath

Don’t hold back! Start your creative journey, says LitFest2444 presenter

At 18, Hayley Lawrence began writing her first novel. Now, with her acclaimed first novel behind her and a second set to follow, the Port Macquarie author has some simple advice for young people yearning to explore their creativity: ‘Don’t hold back – go for it’. At LitFest2444, Lawrence will return to present an already-sold out The Art of Writing Gripping Stories, a half-day workshop that will give students the creative tools to develop a plot for a novel, short story, film, or stage production. In this interview with Port Macquarie journalist, Laurie Sullivan, Lawrence reveals her passion for journaling, where she find inspiration, how she overcomes writers’ block, and why writing a novel is a lot like childbirth.

Hayley Lawrence and husband Chad moved from Sydney to Port Macquarie in 2005 so Chad could pursue his career as a pilot. Like many refugees from the city, they soon fell in love with the relaxed coastal lifestyle, deciding to put down roots and raise a family.

Lawrence had begun a life-long passion for journal writing at seven (“spilling my secrets into them”) before taking her first tentative steps into fiction writing at 18. But, a career in the law and marriage side-tracked her literary ambitions for a time. It was another 12 years before she completed her first novel. “We started having babies - five girls to be precise,” she says. “But, I have no regrets. I tell people that they will always be my best work, my most important contribution to the world.”

Are you still journaling? Is it part of your creative process?

“Yes. Journaling helps me as a writer. I still write my journal entries in long hand because I love the texture and smell of books: In fact, I don’t like reading ebooks. I keep a diary simply for the joy of writing, but it’s also become a kind of therapy for me. I can’t work through anything emotionally unless I put it down on paper. That developed over many years: It was my way of making sense of the world. My journal is a safe place where I can be totally honest with myself without fear of judgement. Right from the start, my journals had always been brutally honest, but when I started having kids I noticed that I’d begun censoring myself. I think that subconsciously I was worried that one day my kids would read my words. But, then I made a conscious decision to stop doing that. I want my journals to be authentic, so they’ll know my life was just as real as theirs and not some glossed over magazine version. Journaling helps you be honest, which makes it easier to be authentic when you jump inside your characters’ heads and bring them to life in a way your readers can relate to. Often when I’m struggling to write my 2000 words a day, I’ll turn to my journal. That way I’m still writing, just in another form, and I don’t beat myself up!

Many first novels are semi-autobiographical or drawn from a confronting personal experiences. Should budding authors look within for creative inspiration?

“Definitely. In my days as a young solicitor, one of my clients was a teenage girl with enormous vitality, intelligence and creativity. She’d been diagnosed with the aggressive disease neuroblastoma, which forced her to confront the fact that she was not going to have a long life. How does a teenage girl accept that? How do her parents? Exploring those questions inspired my first YA novel, The Other Side of Tomorrow. It was my creative writing apprenticeship. Similarly, my second novel, Inside the Tiger came from the experience of writing to a foreign prisoner in Thailand’s BangKwang Central Prison. I had wanted to do some form of community service, but I was time poor. I began researching ideas and came across a website dedicated to supporting BangKwang’s foreign prisoners. I chose a prisoner from the list, wrote him a letter and he wrote back. And, so began five years of correspondence, with me sending him care packages of toothpaste, soap, towels and non-perishable food, and us exchanging news about our very different worlds. I never actually intended to write a novel about that, but it all came flooding back when Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were on death row in Indonesia in 2015. I started writing Inside the Tiger and the words just poured out of me. I was finishing the first draft while Andrew and Myuran’s lawyers were making their final appeals for clemency. I completed it on the night before they were executed, which was surreal. It was gut-wrenching to see their coffins emerge from the gaol.

As a published author and LitFest2444 presenter, what advice do you give a young person – indeed someone of any age – who tells you they feel a need to express themselves in some creative way?

“Do it, do it now! One of my regrets is that I didn’t pursue creative writing with more determination in my teens. My advice is to decide on a project and set realistic deadlines. Once you feel confident in your work, start submitting it to the many great competitions we have in Australia. My eldest daughter is quite creative and used to lament that her more athletic sister was always winning ribbons and medals for sport, while she had nothing to show for her talents.

Recently she submitted a story to a writers’ festival and won a first prize. They live streamed the event on Facebook and we watched as her story was read to the audience, which was amazing for her. Just entering a competition gives kids a sense of validation. And, if they want to pursue a creative career later, they will have built up a resume of literary credentials. One of the first things book publishers ask is: “Have you got any writing experience?” Positive industry feedback is a very important part of having your work considered for publication – especially for a young person. A publisher will be much more willing to take a chance if they think you might be the next big thing.

For aspiring writers, attending writing festivals is worthwhile too. I’ve been to lots of them now and you not only get to meet other writers, but editors and agents who can offer invaluable advice and help you understand the business of publishing. That’s really valuable for a writer, whatever stage they’re at.

Realistically, what should students who attend LitFest2444 expect to gain?

“As students, it’s enough that they learn practical skills that will help them to express themselves in their studies or in their relationships with their family and peers. Not everyone wants to make a career out of writing or some other creative pursuit. Many of the people who attend workshops or writers’ festivals are simply looking to develop a creative outlet. For some it’s a form of therapy and that’s just as valid. Storytelling is part of who we are as human beings. Short stories, poetry, journaling, blogging are all fantastic creative outlets. LitFest2444 has animators, illustrators, podcasters – it’s a huge array of creative talent available to kids in one place. My eldest daughter is going for the first time with her class and she’s as excited as I am to be attending. Just meeting like-minded people can start a journey, or help to sustain one you’ve already begun.

There’s a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemmingway, but perhaps borrowed from American sportswriter ‘Red’ Smith … “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. What do you do when the words won’t flow or your narrative has stalled?

“I’ve experienced writer’s block many times – every writer does. There are times when 2000 words pours out in a flash and other times when you spend hours and hours dragging out 200. It’s part and parcel of writing. I reached a point in all three of my books where I has a crisis of confidence and thought “this is just too hard, I’m giving up”. You start to kid yourself by saying “I’ll tackle that-other-great-idea instead – it’ll be much easier”. But, it never is. Whenever it all seems too hard I start writing “what if” questions… “what if the character does this or that”. Eventually something emerges to help me through the block. Writing is a bit like childbirth. If you’re going to deliver this little piece of you, you have to keep going, you can’t stop. The funny thing is, when you look at the finished work you can never tell which words poured out and which had to be dragged out into the light of day.

Hayley Lawrence and her 5 daughters.

You’re Mum to five girls under the age of 12. How would you feel about your own Little Women reading your books and journals one day?

“Hmmm, not sure. My books are one thing, but my journals… Maybe one day when they’re much older and they’ve lived through their own stuff I’ll feel more comfortable with them reading about me and my life. After I’m gone they might appreciate my unvarnished honesty and, hopefully, not judge me too harshly!

Is there a ‘right time’ to begin writing novels?

“I’ve heard people say that young people shouldn’t write novels because they don’t have the life experience and should wait until they’re older. But, I disagree. Some young people I’ve spoken to have experienced a great deal. They felt confident that they could tell stories that would resonate with other young people, and maybe older readers too. If you feel the call to write, why not start when you are young? Look at Isobelle Carmody: She wrote her first novel at 18 and has been a massive name in Australian fantasy writing ever since. In fact, she’s also presenting at Litfest! We are all finding our way in the world. Many years ago, my late friend Father (Leo) Donnelly told me that our souls become more perfect over time. I didn’t understand what he meant then, but now I realise that he was telling me that the longer we travel through life, the more we understand who we are. So, I encourage young people to start their writing journey when they feel ready – at any age. Don’t wait, don’t hold back, start your journey!”

© Laurie Sullivan 2019

Cre8ive Solutions

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