Friday, August 8, 2014

Applying the hero's journey structure to a 25-minute speech. Or a novel.


The heroic figure above, if you can see it, is from the DARE Conference 2014 web site.  I wonder what feelings it evokes in you? I love it. Yes, we can fly to the stars: imperfect, comical, human though we are, we can have an adventure and reach new heights.

I'm going to be one of the speakers at this very special conference, whose tag line is "People Skills for Digital Workers."

They do everything differently at DARE. All speakers craft their talks into the standard hero's journey structure, based on Joseph Campbell's classic. This structure is almost obligatory for film scripts, and is also extremely useful for novels. 

We do this work in small groups, meeting on Skype every few weeks. 

You might think these meetings are a hybrid of writers' group and therapy session.  But what a privilege to have companionship, guidance and support as we work our way through a particular creative process.

We started by hammering a short talk into a 12-step structure, each step introducing a new twist or crisis. So far I have gained at least five benefits.
  1. I have enjoyed quality time with some brilliant people.
  2. My talk has a stronger theme and shape.
  3. I have gained a greater understanding of the hero's journey literary structure. 
  4. I have made a new narrative for my life. (Of course there are many possible records, but the needle is inclined to get stuck.)
  5. I am stumbling towards a deeper understanding of myself and my life. No really! It's true! 
Lucky me. I'm very much looking forward to the DARE conference as a culmination and reward. Step 13? 


Friday, April 25, 2014

Mindfulness and meditation for beginners

Meditate for health and strength and relaxation and creativity. Meditate because it feels nice. Whatever. But if you meditate with the explicit goal of spiritual transformation, you lay yourself open to certain risks. Failure. Disappointment. Self deception.

Of course you may experience spiritual transformation while meditating. Sometimes you may drift into a delicious, quasi-mystical state. You certainly may find emotions welling up unexpectedly.

But if that's not your cup of tea, be aware that Just Doing It always works.

Be kind to yourself: your meditation is fine fine fine, just the way it is. Simply sitting still in one place for 10–15 minutes brings about a certain calmness and other physiological changes. If your mind keeps straying, so what? Noticing your thoughts and letting them go is a big part of meditation. There's no such thing as bad meditation!

6 misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness
  1. Meditation is hard to learn: no way. I learned in a half-hour session with a visiting guru, after which I just did it. Later refresher courses were interesting and pleasant but not necessary.
  2. It takes a lifetime to learn. Rubbish. You can learn how to meditate by doing a short course, which might take a weekend or six 1-hour sessions.
  3. You have to meditate for 45 minutes twice a day. Says who? 
  4. It's a deep and meaningful experience. Well, it may be, sometimes, yes. But usually it's just a practical habit with short- and long-term benefits, like brushing your teeth.
  5. You can't go it alone. You need to commit to a guru, whether Buddhist, Hindu or California New Age. Ah yes, they would say that, wouldn't they?
  6. Some types of meditation are better or stronger or richer or deeper or morally higher than others. Sure, there are many ways to meditate — breathing, focus, body scanning, mantras...  so experiment. Find a method or methods that you like: they're the best ones for you. 
Look around for courses and books that teach rather than evangelise. You may find them within the medical profession or online or locally.

The Five Minute Meditator: the best beginner's book I know. I give it away in handfuls and recommend it left right and centre. Even the title is calming and encouraging. Eric Harrison's other books give depth and perspective to the history and practice of mindfulness and meditation — but no dogma. His latest book, Mindfulness 101, welcomes the arrival of mindfulness as a new world-wide mainstream craze, because it strips the conventional monk's robe off this practical, useful tool.

The Perth Meditation Centre sells Eric Harrison's books online
Mindfulness Works: secular meditation and mindfulness courses in New Zealand
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Practices with Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Humming", a comic novel, available on Amazon at last


Cover by Richard Parkin. Illustration by Lesley Evans
Here it is at last — the Kindle version of my fourth novel.

Humming on Amazon: $3.76

It's fantastic that New Zealand books, once restricted to a paltry 4 million readers, can now be released into the wild. Fly, my pretties!

But Humming looks lonely out there today without a single review. It longs for honest readers to say their piece.

The print version (published by Hazard Press) got some lively comments from readers: clearly it attracts readers of exceptional fluency and super-sensitive funny bones. And they laughed.

Comments from readers of Humming, the print version

This novel is particularly apt for a blog called Old Lady Laughing. Even I laughed aloud many times as I reformatted the book for Kindle publication. And that was a bonus, because my own jokes tend to stop working after the twentieth reading.

Humming is also relevant to my blog theme because the notorious artist, Ivan, moans and groans about how old he is at 50. He won't shut up about it. He can't imagine that Jane (his "boring" lover) could possibly understand, because she is only ... 49 years and 9 months. Ah well, we all meet someone like Ivan if we live long enough!

Meantime, back on the ranch, what about novels one, two, three? OK, they will happen. I'm on to it.

I chose to start with Humming because it's the only one that existed as a Word .doc on my present computer. Earlier novels existed only in hard copy. One by one they will be scanned and formatted — in my own good time.

My sister Lesley did the cover illustration, and Richard Parkin the cover design. Like them?



Friday, December 13, 2013

Two poems read on video with awesome photos


How to do a poetry reading online?

I decided to maximise the visual attractions with expressive (but not explanatory) photos. And squash myself into a corner.

The decision went that way mainly because I was done. Some day I'll get more daring with the video technology but I'll always favour the simplest delivery.

I hope you enjoy the first two poems that I felt deserved to live beyond the book.

Before the Fall (about fathers and faith)

Square yard garden in the city (about, well, small patches of garden in the city, of course)

Writers read: the discipline and glory of comic books

Not a comic reader? Then open your mind and heart to a whole new-to-you genre with endless variety and strange potential. Adrian Kinnaird has done us a great service in creating this heavily illustrated overview of New Zealand comic books —an industry that was repressed in 1954 only to resurrect in 1977 and grow stronger than ever.

Drawing styles vary from bam-bam-black to pastel cute and back again. Stories range from sinister to same-old to save-the-world. But what these 30-odd cartoonists have in common is a fabulous oddness, a unique vision plastered on paper for all to see.

As an old-fashioned wordsmith, I find much to learn here. 

This is what I love best about the book: a sense of wildness and freedom, as if anything is possible — and likely — in this genre. Every cartoonist has an unmistakable personal style. 

And yet cartoonists work within far tighter constraints than novelists.  Structure is a physical attribute: the cartoonist must completely fill a specific number of pages. There's no wriggle room for redundancy or diversions: beneath an often frivolous appearance, every story must be excessively focused and concise, and structured as precisely as a bespoke suit.

Reading From Earth's End makes me appreciate the simplicity of the novelist's task ... and wish I could draw better. Hm, I think I'll go to a drawing class next year.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Old skin

new leaves old skin
New leaves, old skin
Plants grow new leaves every spring.
But humans are stuck with the same old skin.
It was thick, and now it's thin.

I have no idea how I got that scratch. Maybe I brushed against a blade of grass?

Half full, half full ...

OK, we older people are just more sensitive. We bleed for the ills of the world. That's not a scratch, it's stigmata.

Not very convincing, I fear.

Note to self: wear gloves and long sleeves when gardening.





Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Writers read: the plus and minus of writing in the present tense


The Score is a delightful novel about a smashed grand piano and its people. 
As a reader I was happy to be whisked along by the story of Stefan the desperate piano restorer and his unlikely helpers. Attractions include a vivid bunch of characters in various predicaments; an interesting setting in the community housing in Newtown, Wellington, only a short bus ride from my place; and a friendly, confident style.
As a writer, I started pondering the problems of writing an entire novel in the present tense.


  • You can only dive into the past by making a character speak or think about it. You can't take us there.
  • The emphasis is likely be on constant activity. It's difficult to step back for a breather, to reflect on events.
  • If you are telling events as they happen, it's hard to keep the timeline realistic.
  • Your voice must be very engaging to maintain the reader's commitment. A "Hey, look at this!" tone can be tiring.
Adrienne Jansen handles the challenge expertly. The present tense suits the helter-skelter plot and conveys the minute-by-minute confusion of her characters' lives, which are certainly messy. Altogether this is a charming novel, warm and human.
Many a  brilliant novel has been written in the present tense, but it's a heck of a lot harder than it looks. So before deciding to use the present tense in fiction, take a deep breath.