On writing: Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo is the CEO and founder of The Australian Writer’s Centre, the co-host of the immensely popular So You Want to Be a Writer podcast, a visual artist and the curator of the Sydney Lunar Festival 2019 – 2021.

Read on to find out how this powerhouse of a woman got into writing, art and so much more.

How did you start out? What was your first career?

My first career was as an accountant! For some reason, I never considered writing or other creative pursuits truly viable as careers – even though I loved those activities at school. Obviously, I was misguided and realised, later in life, that careers in the arts are very viable and rewarding. I’m glad I figured that out and then had the guts to transition out of accounting.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful at everything you do?

LOL. That’s a subjective statement because I feel there are certainly many things I’ve done where I have not been successful. I do love having goals and then working towards them though. I think you have a better chance at achieving your goals if you fundamentally believe that they are attainable – and that you will get there if you take small, consistent steps in the right direction.

Your goals aren’t achieved overnight. But if you chip away at them, you get to a tipping point where positive things start to happen.

Have you had any failures? What did you learn?

I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who can sit at a piano and simply start playing, to have the ability to improvise and play by ear. I’ve failed at that. I learnt piano when I was young and can sight-read music – but I don’t have a natural ability to play without sheet music. When I see musicians being able to do that really well, I’m in awe. I don’t get jealous – I just feel really inadequate.

Do you have a mentor? How have they helped?

I discovered mentors very, very late in life. And I feel that if I can impart any advice to younger people it is to find mentors early! When I found my first mentor, I wasn’t even looking. He just took it upon himself to mentor me – and I’m glad he did because I benefited so much from the experience. Since then, I’ve actively sought mentors for different reasons. I have a mentor for my business. I have also had different mentors for my art practice. It’s a wonderful experience that makes your journey so much easier.

 'Two Sides' is from Valerie's 'Flying Apostrophes' series
‘Two Sides’ is from the ‘Flying Apostrophes’ series

What inspires you to take on new careers?

I’m a big believer in following your creative curiosity. If something piques your interest, you need to pay attention to whatever is nudging you to go down that path. So often, we close ourselves off to new ideas or think we don’t have time to explore new interests. But I’d encourage people to open themselves up to new creative experiences.

Throughout my life, I’ve let myself do this. I’m a course junkie, I love trying out new things. Sometimes, I discover that I don’t want to go any further with that interest. Other times, it grabs me and I’m fascinated. I let myself go down those rabbit holes and, invariably, something magical happens. It can result in a new career or simply open up opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise come my way.

 'Simmer' is from the 'Flying Apostrophes' series
‘Simmer’ is from the ‘Flying Apostrophes’ series

How do you juggle it all?

Ruthless time management is the short answer. It’s also vital to have effective systems to ensure you’re productive, For example, I ensure I can access any file I need from any device regardless of where I am. In my art studio, I’ve designed it for maximum use of space and I’ve set up multiple ‘stations’ in my studio so that I can work on several pieces at once. And when I’m travelling, I ensure that I have my iPad Pro and Apple pencil with me so that I can continue drawing and sketching even when I’m on the road.

Are there any skills that underpin all of your career paths?

I think that the common trait across all the careers paths is persistence. And it’s a fairly straightforward methodology … In order to figure out how to succeed at something, you need to determine what you need to do to achieve your goals – and that might involve some research, courses or chats with people who can offer advice. And then it’s taking action to actually do those things.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to expand their career into a new area?

If you feel that little nudge of curiosity, start exploring. You have nothing to lose – and so much to potentially gain! Then basically it’s the advice above: learn more about that career, through any means possible, and see if it resonates with you. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. For example, I once went through a period where I considered changing my career to become a scriptwriter. I did some courses but I knew I had to experience what it was like on the job.

At the time, I was obsessed with a particular cop show on TV. So I contacted them, explained my situation and asked if I could basically do ‘work experience’ there for a week. I was 30 at the time. They graciously agreed and I had a wonderful time.

Ultimately, I decided not to become a scriptwriter but I’m so glad I explored it so that I wouldn’t always wonder ‘What if?’

More recently, I indulged in my creative curiosity to explore the world of art. I did courses, found mentors and realised this was a passion. Now I work as a visual artist and so many opportunities have opened up because I let myself go down that path.

Outlier' is from Valerie's 'Flying Apostrophes
Outlier’ is from Valerie’s ‘Flying Apostrophes’ series

What does a normal day look like for you?

There is no such thing! This week, I launched the Winter Collection of my ‘Flying Apostrophes’ series. Then I’m heading into meetings as part of my role as the City of Sydney’s Curator of the Sydney Lunar Festival. I’m travelling from Sydney to Brisbane to run an all-day workshop in storytelling. And then I’ll have some time in the studio to finish a few pieces that require another layer of painting. In between all that, I mentor creatives and writers, mainly graduates of the Australian Writers’ Centre. I have to say, every week is very different. But my favourite moments are when I get to go home most evenings and hug my pets.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed? If so, how do you alleviate that feeling?

When I’m particularly busy, I know I’m going to be prone to feeling overwhelmed. So if I feel myself getting stressed about this I know that it’s time to write down everything that I need to do – and prioritise each task by blocking out a realistic time when I can get that task done.

If I don’t do that, then my stress levels go up because I feel like to have so much to do but don’t have a clear plan of when everything will get done. The mere act of writing everything down reduces my stress levels considerably.

What brings you joy?

There is nothing that brings me more joy than hanging out with my fur-babies. They are adorable and clever and so full of love.

What brings you peace?

That’s the same answer as the previous question. When I’m really present with my fur-babies, everything else melts away and all is right in the world!

What’s your favourite project at the moment?

I love designing and telling stories. So every piece of artwork I create is underpinned by the story that has inspired it. The same goes for my new range of notebooks, totes and accessories I’ve just released. I particularly love designing the notebooks because, as a writer myself, I know how important it is to have your favourite notebook in your handbag so that you get jot down ideas or sketch images for your next creative project.

To find out more, go to ValerieKhoo.com

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