Explore and Create Stories #8: Sharon McDonough
I just love chatting with Sharon. She is someone I just love to talk with in regards to writing, being creative, and exploring mindful self-care. When we first met we shared strategies on multitasking and surviving other people’s expectations when it comes to the ‘diary’ and ‘email emergencies’ (or perceived emergencies from others’ when they have left things to the last minute) and how we don’t ‘wear’ this in terms of how we manage our own time and be true to our self. I just love it when you meet someone who you can bond with and are able to constantly reflect on how to be a better version of yourself, while also helping others’ do the same.
What I love about Sharon is her willingness to explore new things. She does this in her writing, her teaching, her crafting, her cooking, her personal life, and how she engages with others. Her “pretend olive farm” produces some just awesome olive oil (we enjoyed it over the end of year break with homemade fresh bread and dukka…yum yum), but is also for me, something that stands out to how Sharon balances her life with her hubby to spend time with nature, on the land, and with a sustainable and mindful approach. This time on the land just oozes mindful practices that are in the moment, compassionate, and allowing for moments of being present. She relishes meaningful relationships, opportunities to learn and to also share her learnings with others, and try new things.
I so hope you enjoy this #exploreandcreatestories interview with Sharon. I think you will agree her passion and enthusiasm to explore and create possibilities in life are just infectious.
Tell us about what you do.
Is it wrong that I had to think about this question so much? I guess there’s the distinction of what I get paid to do and all the other things I do!
I’m a researcher, teacher, reader and writer. I always feel weird saying I’m a writer and when I moved from teaching into academia I felt like I could more legitimately claim the title as I have to write every day as part of my work, but thinking back I’ve always been a writer. I recently came across a handmade book I’d written when I was in primary school – so I guess I’ve been a writer for quite some time now!
As someone who lives on 42 acres and has two olive groves I’m a pretend olive farmer –pretend because I’m still learning what to do- that’s where being a researcher comes in handy as I can investigate what I need to do! I’m a crafter and I particularly like crochet and knitting as they’re craft forms that have a tradition in my family.
What are you passionate about?
Words and stories. They make the world turn for me. I love the fact that stories give us an insight into people’s worlds and how they make sense of them and there’s so much to learn from peering through a window into other people’s lives.
Learning – my dad has this saying that it’s a bad day if you haven’t learnt something and I think that seeped into my brain (thanks Dad!) as I’m always conscious that there is so much to learn in life! The more I learn, the more I realize how little I still know about the world and I love that feeling of discovering something new. This can be problematic sometimes as I’m like a bower bird who is interested in too many things that I stuff into the filing cabinet in my brain!
I’m passionate about teaching as teachers are such pivotal role models for so many young people – sometimes schools are the safest place for young people and teachers have a central role in opening the doorway to learning for young people. I’m a defender of teachers and of the complexity of the work that they do – people often look in on schools from the outside and pass judgment on the work of teachers but it is such demanding, emotional work and I have so much respect for the profession and those working in it.
What’s inspiring you at the moment?
At the moment I’m really inspired by projects that engage people to work collectively - there are so many cool projects out there where people are pooling their collective skills and effort. I was recently a contributing knitter to the SEAM Warm collective textile project (http://www.seam.org.au/warm) and I loved this- I loved the thought of over 200 knitters producing knitted pieces to be part of a collective art work. I love collaborative projects where people come together to construct something, to connect with community or to improve opportunities for others.
What led you to your latest project or focus?
That bowerbird thing means that I always have multiple projects on the go! Workwise my current projects are about teachers and their working lives, how they see their role, how they learn, how they navigate through the many dimensions of teaching, and the emotions they experience in their work. This focus comes from that interest I have in highlighting the complexity of teaching and for showing that it’s a profession that requires cognitive, relational and emotional work and isn’t something that can be reduced to a list of technical skills or tested in instrumental and limiting ways.
How do you approach creativity in your life?
That’s an interesting question. Earlier last year year I felt like I’d lost some of my creative focus – I felt like I was starting to get bogged down in things that weren’t enabling me to write or think creatively. Prior to this, creativity had just seemed like something I didn’t need to make time for, it was just there, but this year in some aspects of my working life, I realized that I was losing some of that creative edge- that it was being squeezed out – I found myself thinking that I didn’t have time to be creative. I started to realize I was really missing opportunities to express myself creatively, so I gave myself a ‘creative reboot’ – I made a conscious effort to make time each day to do something that fed my creativity, whether it was writing, taking photos, crafting something, baking or reading.
We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?
When I’m in the moment I lose track of time and am totally immersed in what I’m doing. It’s not something I’m not normally conscious of at the time - it’s just those moments when you have focus on one thing only – there’s no other competing thoughts coming into your brain. It’s like everything else is suspended momentarily. Sometimes though, you kind of catch yourself in those moments and realize how great it feels.
What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?
I don’t know if it’s about balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow for me, it’s more that being mindful allows me to be more creative. So I guess one comes from the other rather than them being in some sort of balanced relationship. I’ve had much more of a focus this year on mindfulness – partly because of what I said before about feeling like I was losing some of my creative edge. I’d always thought I was a fantastic multitasker, but this year I started to feel that all that multitasking was making me scattered – so I started focusing on one thing at a time and being more mindful about the things I was doing. This has been so important for me – when I give myself the time and freedom to focus on just one thing, it is more likely that those flow moments will happen. I’m pretty lucky that I work in an occupation where I can carve out some of those opportunities and spaces, but I’m also focused on building in times throughout the day for mindfulness as it’s so easy to get caught up in the mindless rush of things, particularly when social media is ever present!
What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours?
Having too many creative projects on the go at once! I currently have multiple writing projects on the go, craft projects and farming things as well – too many things, not enough time! But it’s like my reading material, different projects are things that I want to work on at different times. Writing projects I like to work on first thing in the morning, whereas I like to work on crochet projects at night as I find the rhythmic movement of the crochet hook relaxing.
How do you find your zen?
Being outdoors staring at the sky- I’m obsessed with the sky and cloud patterns. There’s something about standing (or lying) staring up at the sky that makes everything seem small and inconsequential when you realize how big and beautiful the sky is, particularly when there are clouds inching their way across it. The sea is also a really important place for me to find my zen – I feel instantly calmer when I’m there. And mowing! That sounds crazy I know, but one of the things that I love is getting out on the ride on mower – there’s something about being outside, zooming back and forth that I find really relaxing – I describe it as my mowing meditation.
When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity?
When I’m in a state of flow, my productivity definitely improves – it comes back to having that intense focus on one thing. If I’m writing and experiencing flow it means I’m making progress- that’s not always about the number of words on a page though, the progress might be that the concept is becoming clearer, that I’m starting to see how things could come together and be conceptualized. It’s that feeling that things will suddenly hang together and you realize how the words might be organized to help you convey the message you want to say.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?
Oh there’s been so many- I’m going to find it really difficult to choose, so here’s three in no particular order!
I’m going to go right back to high school and to the influence of one of my teachers Pam Wade. Pam took me aside and had a quiet word to me about the fact that I just needed to be who I was and not to try and pretend to be something I wasn’t or to hide who I was. It was at a time when as a teenager I was feeling less than confident about the fact that I was a nerd (because let’s be clear, there’s no hiding the fact now that I’m a giant nerd – I’m happy about it). Her message was pretty simple, but she seemed to know it was what I needed to hear at the time. You can’t go through life pretending to be something you’re not and that has informed my entire career – I’ve got to have a sense of authenticity in what I do, it’s got to matter to me. It’s also one of the moments that I come back to when I think about the importance of teachers – sometimes it’s the simplest actions that teachers do which can have a profound influence on students.
I’m always inspired by my good friend Dr. Maryann Brown who is CEO of the Macpherson Smith Rural Foundation. Maryann has so many great ideas for ways that we can strengthen our communities to support young people and their teachers, and I get totally swept up in her ideas and plans!
Another big influence would be the many colleagues I’ve worked with in both schools and universities – I’ve been lucky to work with some fabulous, dedicated and passionate teachers who have influenced how I approach my own work.
How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)
Let’s say a 7. I’m currently working on some projects that give me such a good creative buzz – but I wish I had more time for them!
Tell me, who are you clicking on at the moment?
Instagram – always! I love the collection of visuals that spark ideas for projects that I could create or which enable me a snapshot into other people’s creative processes.
I’m also always clicking on Pip Lincolne’s Meet me at Mikes blog – I really like the way she talks about her own creative processes and the things that inspire her.
Tell me, who are you listening to at the moment?
My favourite podcast at the moment is Chat 10, Looks 3 - Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales- it combines so many of my favourite things, baking, reading and politics!
Tell me, who are you talking to at the moment?
Friends, family and colleagues. I’m really bad at small talk and instantly want to know what matters deep down to people and why, and my family and friends are pretty good at putting up with my questions and with my requests for stories about their lives!
Tell me, who are you are reading at the moment?
Too many things! I’ve always got loads of books precariously stacked on my bedside table (are you seeing a pattern here?). I’m reading Clementine Ford’s Fight like a girl as I’m interested in the way she sees feminism as a central part of her life. I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed which is her interpretation of The Tempest as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series- I love Shakespeare and I’ve really enjoyed this series as authors take the story and re-interpret it.
I’m a magazine addict and my favourite magazines at the moment are Dumbo Feather, Womankind and New Philosopher. I love the way they explore people’s lives and the interesting range of people they showcase.
What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark? or What advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative?
Everyone is creative, but people will have a different form for that creativity. It’s easy to immediately associate creativity with art, but you can be creative with ideas, words, objects, maths, systems. Creativity for me is about looking at things differently and coming up with new ways to represent something or produce something. So, if you think you’re not creative, I’d say think again! If you’re struggling to find your creative spark, I’d spend some time thinking about what it is that you like to do, be that writing, drawing, tinkering, engineering, crafting, and spend some time doing just that, but with no expectation for what you’ll produce. Don’t think you have to produce a creative masterpiece, just spend some time doing something that makes your soul sing- whatever that is!
What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow?
I recently read Neil Gaiman’s The view from the cheap seats and I think I could probably close my eyes, stab at the page and get a line that would be fantastic, but this is one of my favourites:
Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
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