A Novel Prescription: Multi-passionate creative careers with Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo offers book recommendations for Multi-passionate Creative Careers
Valerie Khoo

I am delighted to introduce our very first guest prescriber. Valerie Khoo is an author, journalist and CEO of the Australian Writers’ Centre. She is also a visual artist and you can find her original artwork and prints at ValerieKhoo.com.

I’ve admired Valerie for a long time. She was editing my favourite magazines when I was in high school, and more recently I’ve enjoyed listening to her pragmatic advice as co-presenter of the “So You Want To Be A Writer” podcast. Valerie is an eminent Australian businesswoman and all-round creative person, and I think you’ll find her prescriptions spot-on.

Thanks to Zewlan for inviting me to write a guest post.

As the Director of the Australian Writers’ Centre, I’m obviously passionate about both reading and writing. I’m also a big believer in having a multi-passionate career. That is, you don’t have to focus on just one pursuit; you should be able to explore any creative itch that you want to scratch. About a year or two ago, I picked up a paintbrush and I really haven’t looked back. So now, I divide my time between writing and creating art.


“Escapade in situ” Artwork by Valerie Khoo

Often people ask me where I get the time and energy to do all of these projects. The thing is, if you really want to do something, you will find a way. You just have to want it enough. And that applies to anything – if you want to write a book, learn to drive, take up painting, spend more time with your friends, become a Masterchef-level cook – anything at all, if you really want it, you’ll find the time.

I once knew someone who wanted to own a bar. She could picture herself standing behind the bar, chatting to locals, mixing award-winning cocktails. But she couldn’t picture herself writing a business plan, applying for a liquor license, negotiating with suppliers, hiring cleaners. She could only picture herself behind the bar.

Any creative endeavour is like that. You have to put in the effort and you have to make the time. You have to write on the bus, draw on your phone while you’re in a queue, sing in the shower, practise your dance steps while doing the dishes. Don’t just picture your name on a book or see yourself doing an interview at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – at some point, you have to actually do the writing!


Artwork by Valerie Khoo
“Breakthrough in situ” ~ Artwork by Valerie Khoo, with books

So for my novel prescription, I have a few books that will hopefully inspire you to take that first step into whatever is your creative passion.


Big Magic

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic_Elizabeth GilbertOkay, okay, this isn’t a novel. But Elizabeth Gilbert tells it straight. Despite the title, there is no magic formula when it comes to creativity. Be open, be honest, be curious. You don’t need anyone’s permission to create – just start!

Elizabeth says: “So take your insecurities and your fears and hold them upside down by their ankles and shake yourself free of all your cumbersome ideas about what you require in order to become creatively legitimate. Because I’m telling you that you are already creatively legitimate, by nature of your mere existence here among us.”

If you need a kick in the pants to get started on your creative journey – whatever shape that takes – then this is the perfect place to start. I will add that Elizabeth can really polarise people. You’ll either love what she says and embrace the message, or you’ll think it’s hokey nonsense. But give it a go – you might be surprised! And that’s what a creative life is all about.

Prescribed for: People who have lots of excuses for not being creative.


Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

By J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK RowlingI’m prescribing this book for two reasons. One is that it’s the story of an ordinary boy who is swept into an extraordinary world. Despite everything new and strange around him, he is open and courageous and ultimately defeats the bad guy. Think of this as an allegory for your creative journey. It may seem wild and strange and terrifying – but if little Harry Potter can have the courage to persist, then so can you.

Secondly, everyone knows the story of how J K Rowling wrote this book and eventually had it published. As the single mum of an infant daughter, she could only write in snatched moments. She often wrote sitting in a café because it was cheaper than running the heating at home. Rowling’s life was at a very low point. Her mother had died, her career was stalled and her marriage had failed. And yet she found the courage inside her to tap into her creativity.

Now, not every creative journey ends with becoming a billionaire like her! But those first steps and the tenacity to keep going is what you need.

Prescribed for: People who need the courage to start their project.


The Rosie Project

By Graeme Simsion

Rosie Project Graeme SimsionThis is a really fun and charming novel about a man with autism trying to find love. Okay, but how is it about creativity?

Don Tillman is looking for a wife and he creates a careful project to help him achieve that. He has very particular criteria about what an ideal candidate will be like – but instead he finds himself drawn to Rosie who is the very opposite of what he thinks he wants.

Creativity can be like this, too. You may have a very clear idea of how you think the process should go. You think that you should write your novel, get an agent, be published, retire. Or you think that you should aim to have your artworks displayed in the National Gallery.

Having a goal is essential to any success, of course. But you have to be realistic and you have to recognise the great range of opportunities that are available to you. You can show your artworks in your local café. Or maybe self-publishing makes sense for your genre. Send your short stories to a literary journal. Show your art on Instagram. Aim for the skies, yes, but be prepared to veer off the script when it isn’t working for you.

For my own art, I had the opportunity to create a major piece for a real estate agent! That might seem strange, but it was a great commission and an opportunity to really prove myself as an artist.

Prescribed for: People who want to learn to be more flexible in their expectations.


On Writing

By Stephen King

Stephen King On WritingFinally, no get-your-butt-into-creative-gear list would be complete without Stephen King’s memoir about his own writing journey. And boy, is it no-nonsense.

He says: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

And that’s the hard truth about starting your creative journey – you have to start. If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way. Stop making excuses. Start today. Read, write, paint, draw, dance, sing.

Stephen King also makes the really important point that people often forget – if you want to write, you have to read. If you want to make art, you have to observe everything around you. Being creative is not just about what you make – it’s about what you put into yourself, too. Go to galleries, take yourself on creative dates, watch films with a critical eye. Scare yourself. Do something new. Watch opera on YouTube or go to a ballet performance. All of these things will enrich your creative practice.

Prescribed for: People who need a no-nonsense kick in the butt to start writing!

Thanks Valerie, for both your recommendations and your day-brightening paintings. I can see why you’re getting so many commissions!
If you’d like more monthly Novel Prescriptions delivered directly to your inbox, please sign up to the newsletter. As a busy GP and mother, I promise not to bombard you!
If you’d like to book a Bibliotherapy Session for yourself or a loved one, click here.