My top tip is that no one has the answers and , ultimately, you must go deep into yourself to work out why you are writing, who you are writing for, and what you want your writing to accomplish. You have the answers – the writer’s journey is about trusting yourself to find them.Maura Pierlot
Maura Pierlot is an award-winning author and playwright who hails from New York, but has called Canberra, Australia home since the early 1990s. Her writing delves into complex issues including memory, identity, self and, more recently, mental health. Following its sellout 2019 season in Canberra, Maura’s debut professional theatre production, Fragments is being adapted for the digital space, supported by artsACT. The work is published online by Australian Plays Transforms and in print by Big Ideas Press. Maura is a past winner of the SOLO Monologue Competition, Hothouse Theatre for her play, Tapping Out. Her plays have been performed in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. A former medical news reporter and editor of Australian Medicine, Maura also writes for children and young adults. In 2017 she was named winner of the CBCA Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program, and recipient of the Charlotte Waring Barton Award, for her young adult manuscript, Freefalling (now True North). Maura’s debut picture book, The Trouble in Tune Town won the 2018 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (Children’s category) along with international accolades. Maura’s poetry, short stories, microfiction and essays appear in various literary journals and anthologies. Maura has a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate, each in philosophy, specialising in ethics. When she’s not busy writing, Maura visits schools and libraries as a guest reader and speaker, serves as a Role Model for Books in Homes, and contributes reviews for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s online magazine, Reading Time. For further information on Maura and her work, Fragments please visit: https://maurapierlot.com and https://fragmentstheplay.com.
What is the story behind Fragments?
Fragments follows eight young people navigating their way through high school (with one having recently graduated). Although the characters are feeling disconnected, whether at home, at school, in relationships or in life generally, they are all wearing masks, pretending everything’s okay. School captain, Mason – good looking, sporty, high achiever and the one everyone looks up to – is fighting a crippling depression, confiding in his mother, who took her own life years earlier. Are Mason’s peers so absorbed in their own struggles that they can’t see he is not okay, or will their own sense of alienation bring them together, enabling them to draw strength from each other?
How did you approach this important project? Walk us through your creative process.
For a few years I had an inexplicable feeling that I wanted and needed to talk about mental health issues, especially those that young people were facing. In 2016 I received the MPS Travel+Tours Award, Capital Arts Patrons’ Organisation to write the script for Fragments. I spent most of the following year brainstorming – living with the issues in my head, trying to work out how I could tackle this project in a relatable and meaningful way. When I finally started writing, the words easily flowed into eight monologues. It was as though I had lived with these characters for so long that I already knew them inside out, their challenges, how they spoke, who they looked up to at school, who was a nemesis. Rochelle Whyte at Ainslie+Gorman Arts Centres had a look at an early draft and gave some very encouraging feedback. When I was in Perth for a Katherine Susannah Prichard Writer’s Centre Fellowship (for another play), I met with dramaturg, Suzanne Ingelbrecht, who offered valuable insights and told me the project ‘had legs’. I mounted a brief funding campaign via the Australian Cultural Fund, which chose the project for a ‘boost’ grant. With that nominal funding, I engaged James Hartley, who was a ‘script doctor’ for some of my earlier work, to produce the monologues in Sydney. We did a day-long workshop with actors in Sydney and the recently refurbished Pioneer Theatre in Castle Hill picked up the show for its opening season in 2018.
Meanwhile, ArtsACT had funded a week-long creative development, which I undertook as a Visiting Artist at Ainslie+Gorman Arts Centre in Canberra as part of the Ralph Indie Program, working with dramaturg, Gin Savage and a cast of eight exceptionally talented young people. The development was a great blend of dialogue and performative work, interrogating the issues and characters from all angles and culminating in a development showing for an invited audience who provided incredibly useful feedback on the work. I continued to tweak the script and when additional artsACT funding came through for a 2019 production at The Street Theatre, I quickly switched gears, launching into pre-production with director Shelly Higgs and CEO Caroline Stacey, soon casting the work. The challenge was figuring out how to tie the monologues together, determining whose story should sit above as an external narrative, driving the plot and upping the stakes. The Street Theatre selected Fragments for its First Seen Program, which gave me the time and space to interrogate these issues with Shelly and an amazing cast of young performers. Following the sell-out debut season at The Street in October 2019, programmed for Mental Health Month, I was geared up to bring the work to schools in the ACT but the bushfires struck, then COVID, pulling the pin on my plans. I applied for funding from artsACT to revisit and reshape the work post-production, and was thrilled to again receive support, along with funding to adapt the work for the digital space in 2021. When a publication deal was sidelined by COVID, I set out to publish the work myself.
The production of Fragments enjoyed a sell-out season during Mental Health Week in 2019 and received critical acclaim. What led to the release of it in its new format?
Creatives face the never-ending challenge of how to get their work ‘out there’ then how to bring it to new audiences. I always had high hopes for Fragments. Even when I was writing the first draft, I could imagine it in print and on film. My main audience for Fragments is young people and their families, also the educators and health professionals who work with them. Given the currency of the material, I wanted to get the work into schools but COVID made this impossible, somewhat ironic giving the soaring rates of mental health issues during the pandemic. I juggled the two projects in tandem, tweaking the work for the paperback edition, while trying to work out how best to tell the story through film. This has been a huge learning curve, and a somewhat tedious process at times. If 2020 was the year sitting with my work and myself, exploring what I wanted to write, and for whom, then 2021 was the year of stepping far outside my comfort zone, stretching my brain and seizing the opportunities I had created. I’m very pleased with how the paperback edition looks, reads and feels and also with early positive reviews. Although COVID has pushed back the Fragments film production somewhat, but we’re still hoping to release the digital component by the end of the year. The book launch is scheduled for the latter half of October but given that the ACT is still in lockdown, who knows?
What do you hope schools and communities will take away from the stories shared by your cast of characters?
I hope schools and communities will realise that mental health issues need to be addressed in a proactive manner, not only in times of crisis; that the arts can play a vital role in well-being in schools; that workshops delivered to students by adults, no matter how well-meaning, are unlikely to achieve the same level of understanding and attitudinal change that peer-delivered programs will. Through the dramatic arts and literature, audience members and readers are thrust into another world, in the case of Fragments, one that exposes the raw and real issues many that many young people (and adults) are grappling with in these times of uncertainty, enabling them to see themselves in the characters.
I wrote Fragments to start candid conversations about mental health with a view to reducing stigma and to ‘normalising’ issues that have all too often been ignored. I believe the play, the book, and soon the online content, offer an ideal vehicle to do that.
You have dedicated Fragments ‘To everyone who is struggling and searching to connect.’ How much has your personal experience shaped this powerful, thought-provoking work?
Although Fragments came about from my ongoing conversations with young people, the work has definitely been shaped by my own experience. My mother struggled with mental health issues for most of her life, but they weren’t so severe that they warranted a diagnosis –until her later years when a series of catastrophes forced the issue. I often felt like the lone voice in a family that was not ready to embrace the reality of her decline until they had no choice. Meanwhile, I was facing my own challenges. I think many women tend to lose their mojo somewhere between motherhood and menopause, let alone the netherworld that follows, but it’s not easy to work out whether it’s all part of aging, something more troublesome, or simply external stressors that will eventually subside. I had a hellish three-year period from 2017 onwards. I was trying my best to navigate my mother’s complex health journey from 16,000 kilometres away, visiting as often as I could. While this situation was unfolding, my husband became gravely ill (which led to a nearly two-year recovery), my own health challenges were popping up at the most inopportune times, friends died unexpectedly, then my mother. Meanwhile, I was trying to publish my first title, a picture book, while diving into the world of mental health for Fragments. After the debut of Fragments, I thought it was finally time to relax. Then the bushfires hit (we were at the coast), followed by COVID. It was challenging at times to write about mental health when not feeling whole. But in an odd sense, it was arguably a very authentic place from which to imagine the eight character and their stories.
Your writing delves into complex issues including mental health. What challenges does this present to you as a writer?
The challenge is to present honest, realistic portrayals of mental health issues, knowing there is not one ‘typical’ manifestation or story for each condition. Take depression, for example. Of thirty people diagnosed with depression, there will certainly be some overlap of symptoms and clinical findings. But on a subjective level, each person would undoubtedly describe a unique journey. Another challenge is to write about an issue that isn’t easy to identify, let alone describe, as few people open up about their struggles. We all wear masks, whether we admit it or not. We communicate superficially (Q: How’s everything? A: Fine, fine!). When feeling down, we tend to de-legitimise our pain, telling ourselves things like: No one wants to hear my problems. Everyone has stuff they’re dealing with. Things could be worse. I don’t want to ruin the vibe. Mental health issues can be difficult to navigate in real life and when experienced through the eyes and voices of characters. I wanted to do justice to the issues and to write from a place of authenticity. Another challenge was that I didn’t want to be didactic or preachy in any way. The totality of the work needed to be balanced; there had to be some light interspersed with shade. Humour was one way to achieve this, but I needed to ensure that it was used is a measured way that did not detract from the gravity of the issues.
Although young people opened up to me about very intense feelings and experiences, they seemed quite reluctant to tell friends, family and teachers. This wasn’t a scientific study, and I am not a psychologist. But I had a growing sense that many, many young people were feeling lost, confused and, above all, stressed which was manifested in a range of physical and psychological symptoms. Uncertainty about their futures was leading to a sense of pervasive dread. Concern about academic performance was affecting their mood, sleep pattern, social interactions and more. Without the wisdom and nous that age and experience bring, they were often struggling to keep issues in perspective. Instead, heightened senses led them to view relatively minor occurrences as major and somehow a failure on their part. They constantly compared themselves to others; not surprising, given the unattainable ideals perpetuated by social media. But at school most of them were forging ahead, pretending everything was okay, internalising their fears, feelings and struggles – ironically, even though their peers were struggling with similar issues. I had this overwhelming sense that young people were living parallel lives when they could be helping one another. There’s no miracle fix for mental health struggles but there is great relief and comfort in knowing you’re not alone. It’s ironic that in this day and age, global online platforms are making us more disconnected (in an existential sense) than ever. I hope Fragments encourages all of us to reach out, to speak our own truths, to listen to others without judgment, and to connect on a meaningful level.
You have written short fiction, poetry, memoir, YA fiction and a picture book as well as plays. Do you find it easy to adapt your writing for different markets and reader audiences?
I’m not sure that I find it easy but, if I’m motivated, feeling the right energy and in the right head space, I don’t find it particularly onerous. I tend to mull over what I want to say, and for whom. Then I live with the ideas for some time, letting them marinate in my subconscious before an inevitable wrestling match where they fight for dominance, leaving the ideas that have to come out in some shape or form. Usually, I have a strong intuitive sense of the art form; I know at the outset that I’m writing a short story, not a play. As I’m progressing the work, I’ll often get an equally compelling feeling that it could, or should, be adapted for a different market. The best way I could explain it is: For Fragments, I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew the ‘reality’ I wanted to create would be on stage, ideally a small space where the audience was yanked into the characters’ inner worlds, where they could see their tears fall and beads of sweat form on their brows. I didn’t, for example, say, I’d love to write a play then sit down and wonder what I should write it about.
What’s the best aspect of your creative life?
The best aspect of my creative life is that I have the freedom to do what I want, developing work that means something to me, and hopefully to others. Another great aspect is that, relatively late in life, after decades of putting everyone’s needs before my own, I’m finally doing what I want to do.
The worst aspect is the highly commercial and risk-adverse nature of the industry, and the unfortunate tendency to measure worth by publication success, sales figures or merchandising potential. For the most part, the market is served by what the market always buys, as the market can only buy what it is served. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t grant a great deal of space to non-commercial voices on issues that matter. Hence the inordinate number of books by celebrities and children’s books about bodily functions. My other concern (and I may get hammered here lol) is that the path to publication has become a big business. It often seems like there are ten times as many people offering to help (for a cost) as there are aspiring authors. Developing craft is hugely important but (despite disclaimers to the contrary) the inference is that by attending the conference, or participating in the workshop, or doing the course, you’re somehow more likely to find publishing success. Otherwise, let’s be honest, why would people continue to fork out the dollars? Yes, some people have found publication success this way, and that’s fantastic, but they would represent a microscopic drop in the proverbial ocean.
I’m concerned by how many aspiring creatives I’ve spoken to in recent years (dating back to before COVID) who were exhibiting signs of anxiety, depression and lack of self-worth because their work had not been picked up. Publishing is a strange business model where feedback is not given, courtesies are often not extended, there is no clear brief, you are constantly told what you should and shouldn’t be doing, and you face rejection on a regular basis. There are some exceptional resources on offer by various authors and organisations but, as in any industry, there are many that are far less so. I think aspiring authors should be judged for their work, not for who they know, who they follow, who they hang out with, what their backstory is, or how invested they are in the industry. When I buy a work of art, I don’t base my decision on the maker’s social media following, or their personal background, or whether they paid their dues in the industry. I let me eyes and heart do the work: am I drawn to this piece of art? Does it speak to me on some level? (And is the price right 😉) Basing decisions on superficial rather than substantive reasons doesn’t help anyone in the long term. I’d go as far as saying I think this approach loses sight of, perhaps even devalues, the work itself.
What are you working on at the moment?
The digital adaptation of Fragments will keep me quite busy through the end of the year. I’m in the early (developmental) phase of my next play, a full-length work on a controversial issue that’s been in the news recently. I’m also knee-deep in a few community initiatives that I’ve developed, which have unfortunately been sidelined by COVID. But I’m looking forward to launching at least one of them, possibly two, by the end of the year.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Back yourself.
How important is social media to you as a writer?
I would love to say that social media is crucial, allowing writers to engage with their audiences, to test new work, to broaden their base and so forth. But I don’t buy into all that. I’m a cynic at heart and don’t believe that social media presence has a direct correlation to sales. And it certainly doesn’t do anything to enrich our souls. I also believe most writers spend far too much time trying to come up with content, usually formulated for a specific end (read: not truly authentic). I treat social media quite differently and break all the rules. I only post when I feel motivated with little to no concern about the timeslot. I don’t plan my posts (unless there’s a time-dated event, like a book launch or #philosophyfriday). I don’t have a ‘brand’ or a ‘look’. I simply wake up and, as I’m downing my second (third?) coffee, I think, What’s on my mind today? Sometimes, it is as simple as a bird singing outside my window, a funny thing that one of my kids said, a memento that I’ve come across, a strange encounter that I just had, a challenge that I’m facing. The mundane stuff. But I often wax lyrical or philosophical; think Seinfeld’s poor cousin meets Aristotle. In my view, social media is unhealthy, generally addictive and exacerbates FOMO. Yes, it’s great for engaging with readers (though whether anyone can truly have a meaningful engagement online is debatable). I decided early on that if I was going to dive into social media, I needed to be in control of the process, not the other way around. So I imposed very strict rules. I literally point and shoot, type a few words, spellcheck and post. I spend less than ten minutes max per post and probably less than half an hour each day scrolling through my feed. With my writing workload, family and community commitments, and our business, there simply are not enough hours in a day for me to engage as much as I’d like to on other people’s posts. Besides, I tend to think many ‘conversations’ devolve into public posing. I’m much more interested in engaging with people about something meaningful via DM, online or in real life.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it?
I don’t get writer’s block in the sense of sitting in front of the computer on deadline and not being able to think of anything to say. I experience what I prefer to call ‘writer’s ambiguity,’ where I’m tossing around issues and can nearly feel and see the shape of what I want to say … but not quite. I do a lot of brainstorming and development in my head (unfortunately, often when I’m just about to fall asleep) and I only sit down to write when I have a good idea of what I’m trying to say. Not in the sense of a structure or outline, just in an overall sense. For Fragments, for example, I wanted to write a work about young people living in an isolated, internalised world who take the first steps towards healing through a sense of connectedness. My first draft usually takes a conversational or confessional tone. That nearly always leads to something.
How do you deal with rejection?
Rejection, in itself, doesn’t bother me. If I submit a picture book, for example, and no one bites, I don’t let it get to me. I’m a strong believer that things happen for a reason, even if the reason doesn’t reveal itself for some time. I do try to target my submissions but, to be honest, submitting these days is like a crap shoot. Publishers have unseen ‘lists’ and can’t say specifically what they want (“we want stories that make our hearts sing”), just that your work isn’t it. It’s like me shopping for a sofa and telling the floor staff, I can’t describe it, but I’ll know it when I see it. It’s a bit of a magic act so there’s no way I’d take a negative outcome personally. It’s great when someone’s interested in your work but it’s important not to beat yourself up when they’re not.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Smart, original, compelling.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life?
I suspect my answer to this question would change daily. However, based on what I’ve been writing lately, and where my head is at right now, I’d want to spend an hour with Nora Ephron, a New York humourist, essayist, writer and filmmaker. I love her cynicism and dry wit, how she strived to balance the heavy topics with humour, how she adapted to write across art forms, how she wrote about everyday life. (“Everything is copy,” her mother, a writer, is known to have told her.) I would ask Nora: When writing about your life, and the world around you, how do you make people care about what you think, and how do you address the inevitable tension between the ‘professional’ (writing about the experience) and the ‘personal’ (experiencing it)? And if she didn’t have the answers, I have no doubt she’d still make me laugh. And genuine laughter is a prized commodity in my view, especially these days.
Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why?
I’m tempted to say MacGyver because then I’d be out of the lift in five minutes. But I’ll say my father. Because I never got to say goodbye to him and would love the opportunity, even if just for an hour, to say so many things that had been left unsaid.