Telling stories is what it’s all about here at the Australian Writers’ Centre. And for Lisa Venables, recounting a very difficult time in her family’s life provided her with both an emotional and creative outlet. That outlet became her book, Saving Zali – telling the story of her infant daughter’s battle with cancer.
Finding her voice
Lisa had been a passionate creative writer for years, but had never done anything professionally – in fact, quite the opposite, working for 10 years as a Police Officer in the Organised Crime Drug Squad. In the haze and aftermath of dealing with one-year-old daughter Zali’s diagnosis, treatment and recovery from LCH (a rare form of cancer usually fatal in children under two), Lisa felt the need to document the emotional rollercoaster she had been on.
“It was a way to formally acknowledge that we went through a difficult time, but that despite the odds, we had come through it,” she said. “Writing the book gave me some closure on my feelings.”
Enrolling in the Life Writing course at Australian Writers’ Centre helped Lisa organise what she wanted to say, and how to say it. “The Life Writing course with Patti Miller helped me put Saving Zali into a shape that made sense,” she recalls. “Patti’s lessons in memory, structure, chronology and research were invaluable – particularly chronology.”
In penning a memoir that dealt with a specific series of events, Lisa’s motivations for writing it evolved over time. “At first, it was for my own reasons,” she admits. “I needed to process what had happened because I didn’t understand it myself. I knew that we’d been incredibly lucky, and that her recovery was ground-breaking, but my understanding of it was jumbled and confused.”
Yet she also realised this was an opportunity to spread the word and share an important message through her work. “Childhood cancer is such a taboo subject,” Lisa says. “The disease is so undeserved and the thought that a child could die is just so awful that it’s not talked about at all. Because of this taboo, it was very hard for [loved ones] to talk with us about it.”
She hopes that Saving Zali will resonate with her target audience – middle-aged mums just like her, to perhaps make it easier for someone who may find themselves going through what she did.
The joy of writing
With the confidence she gained with Life Writing course, Lisa loved the book writing process. “It was cathartic and liberating,” she recalls. “Many hours were lost happily typing away!”
But she’s also quick to admit that there are days when you look at a blank page and wonder what to write, or how you’ll fix things in your manuscript that aren’t working. And it’s those times she was thankful she’d done a writing course to help her be a better writer. “When you do a course, you learn those skills that help shape how your writing comes out,” she says. “It’s the difference between just your mum knowing what you meant to say and a commercial audience understanding what you’ve said!”
It turned out that a writing course at the Australian Writers' Centre is also a brilliant place to make vital contacts. “A friend I had met on the Life Writing course told me about a freelance editor she was using and suggested I try her,” Lisa explains. “So I went through the editing process, and then that editor got in touch with her friend, literary agent Selwa Anthony, who liked my work and wanted to represent me!”
Even better than that, within about a week of getting her agent, Pan Macmillan was interested and about a month later Lisa had signed a contract for her first book!
Saving Zali has been well received, and Lisa has seized the opportunity to follow her writing dreams. “I also did the Creative Writing course online for a historical fiction manuscript I was writing, and this is now with my agent and looking promising.”
With Zali turning seven, she becomes five years cancer-free, and it’s a special time for Lisa. With her own creative passions ignited, she is researching and writing up to 2000 words a day for her next book, as well as promotion work for her current one.
It may have been borne from a dark times, but Lisa is adamant to embrace her new path in life. “I want to be a writer!” she proudly proclaims. “And as with all things, the more often I write, the more easily it comes!”