After being slightly encouraged, slightly heckled by some writing buddies on Twitter – they know who they are – I decided to join the WA branch of the #5amwritersclub.
“Branch” makes it sound far more bureaucratic and formal than it actually is: it’s a new and small collective of West Aussie writers who commit to waking up early and getting some writing done at five o’clock in the morning.
When I was first invited (peer pressured?) to join the other authors in this endeavour, my first response was there was no fucking way this was going to happen.
Not because I didn’t want to join them: they’re all grouse people and we chat on Twitter all the time.
Not because I don’t like the idea of being productive with my writing – there is almost no better feeling than having just written something.
No, I was reluctant because it involved waking up so bloody early. I feel like I’ve already sacrificed all semblances of luxury by strategically setting my alarm at 6am each morning (and then 6.10 … and 6.15 … I’m one of those desperate snooze-button fiends).
5am felt like a bridge too far.
But then I got to thinking about how hard it’s been over the past three weeks to make time for my writing. As I tutor at a university, in addition to my other jobs, the start of the uni semester always leaves my head spinning. In fact, apart from a whole lot of thinking and planning and plotting, I don’t think I’d written a word of a creative nature since February.
Crapola, I thought. No damn wonder I’ve been feeling listless and rudderless, like an athlete trapped in a hotel room.
As soon as I saw it that way, I really did start to feel caged by the chaos of my quotidian “busy-ness” and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting being an adult before being an artist. So it was a no-brainer after that. I desperately wanted to pull my sneakers on, escape the metaphorical hotel suite and go for a sprint around the block.
I went to bed early last night, and set my alarm for 4:55am. When it went off this morning, for a change I didn’t hit snooze. I admit I did go into HULK SMASH mode for the first couple of minutes, both in terms of wanting to communicate solely in monosyllabic grunts and also in terms of wanting to shatter my phone with my fist and curl back up into bed.
But I have a stubborn streak that sometimes works to my advantage: once I set my mind to something, I do it, and I do it well.
So I yanked my laptop across the plush carpet beside my bed – where I had strategically placed it last night, anticipating my Hulkish mood – flipped it open and just began writing.
I actually didn’t even sit up, which is really bad for the neck: I just remained laying in bed with the laptop awkwardly perched on my abs. (Hah! Kidding. I mean my gut. If I have abs, they are as hidden as Donald Trump’s compassionate side.)
I had a blank word document, and absolutely no plans on what I wanted to write. There was no expectation of penning an amazing literary work, nor working on my third novel draft (which is still in the planning phase).
So I sat for about thirty seconds, and a line just drifted into my mind, like I’d plucked it right out of the soul of the universe. More of an image, than a complete sentence. Within seconds I had an opening scene, and two characters, and a plan.
I wrote furiously from 5am until 7am, and in that sacred two hour block, I churned out just over 1400 words. To put this into context, when I do NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long writing sprint, my daily word count needs to remain at 1667, so to churn out 1400 words in one morning is fantastic progress.
So, what was it that I wrote? It’s definitely not a novel, or a novella. It’s the first half, maybe the first third, of a short story. It taps into a really random idea I’ve had for awhile now about a security guard, so that’s what I’m working on.
As much as the flow kind of consumed me for those two hours, I reached a point where my motor began to putt and before I knew it, I was out of fuel and running on fumes. It’s really odd how that happens when I write: one moment I’ll be excited and driven by what I’m writing, and a second later I’ll be jaded like an aristocrat slumming it at a dinner party below their station. “What is this measly short story in front of me? Ugh. Get it away. I want caviar.”
I’ve learned to listen to my writing impulses, and make way for both the flow and the ebb, so I stopped and I knew I was done for the day.
This is good, though, because it gives me something to leap straight back into when I write tomorrow. And it gives me the goal of finishing this particular short story by the end of the week.
I have no idea if taking part in the #5amwritersclub is going to work out for me long term. It worked today because Monday is my home day where I write and do admin stuff, but it might be a different story tomorrow. I’ll take it as it comes.
What I do know is that I’m keen to finish this particular short story, and I’m excited at hopefully developing a regular writing practice again.
And it makes all the difference knowing that some other writer buddies are waking up, and struggling, and striving, and tweeting, and cheering on, and succeeding right along side me.
Last November, I was lucky enough to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award from the Australian Society of Authors. The prize was a one week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House. I never expected to win the award, so the residency was an absolute dream come true.
I rushed forward and took the residency in January this year. And it’s taken me a whole four weeks of sitting on my hands to work up the motivation to write about it. It was today that I realised why I’ve been putting it off for so long. It’s because once I write this, it will actually be over – a relic of memory and experience and nothing else. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to cling to it a bit longer; keep it in the present day. But the days are passing inexorably, and the memories are no longer fresh but faded.
So I want to record them, before they atrophy any further.
Monday 15th January 2018
This day barely counts as a day of my residency, because I was in Sydney for most of it. I had breakfast at a creperie with my teenage nieces and nephews. Double maple for me. I ordered in French to an entirely unimpressed French waitress.
Lunch was at a burger joint in Sydney’s CBD with my amazing literary agent, Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency. We spent about half an hour talking excitedly before either of us remembered we were actually meant to order food. It was a brilliant meeting and I left feeling so pumped for what’s ahead of me and INVISIBLE BOYS – in 2018 and beyond.
I swanned around the city for a few hours exploring – it was my first time in Sydney, ever, and I was so enraptured. It was like being back in Europe, but this city was also so unlike Europe, and certainly a long way from anything I had ever known as Australian.
In the arvo, I collected my suitcase from my older brother’s office on George Street and then began my navigation of peak-hour traffic on Sydney’s trains. I was crushed into a skinny, cuboid version of myself – now that part was really reminiscent of being on the tube in London – and trained it out to the Blue Mountains.
I thoroughly underestimated how long the ride would take: I arrived at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, at around 8:30pm, travel-weary and kind of worried. I honestly expected to rock up to a darkened house; I kept imagining that I’d be knocking on the door to no response, calling every phone number I could to the dejection of unanswered voicemails. I figured I might have to curl up and sleep on the pebbles outside.
My reception at Varuna was actually very warm. Before I even got out of the taxi, one of the other four resident writers – the wonderful and celebrated poet (and fellow Perthite) Nandi Chinna – was already out the front of the house to greet me.
“You must be Holden,” she said. “We were worried about you.”
I was really touched by this. I was alone in a new place and a bit overwhelmed that I had even been chosen to go to Varuna. I will never forget her saying that.
The Varuna staff (who are all super nice people) had already gone home for the night, so the other writers took me into the house, gave me a tour and showed me to my room. The caterer, Sheila, had saved my dinner for me – a delicious chicken curry – so I microwaved it and wolfed it down while chatting to my fellow writers.
The vibes were immediately warm and supportive, which relaxed my nerves and made me feel ready for the next day.
Tuesday 16th January 2018
I usually wake up at 6am, so I must have been running on Perth time still as I woke at 9am and felt instantly like I’d wasted half my day. I was a bit thrown off, so I took my breakfast up to my studio to get to work straight away.
I’d been allocated the Bear Room, and I still find it hilarious that they chucked the gay bloke into something called the Bear Room. Alas, no hot bears within, but it was a charming and quaint bedroom and writing studio. I was instantly drawn to the space, even though it was the smallest of the five studios at Varuna. I could have had my pick of the bigger spaces if I’d chosen a later residency, but I was desperate to get to work as soon as possible, and January was the earliest slot that worked.
As soon as I threw the curtains open, I realised this was the perfect place for a writer to work.
Morning mountain sunlight breaking over trees and green lawn and quaint gardens below. The workspace backs directly onto my bedroom, and used to be a sunroom, which is why it’s so incredibly light and airy. I took so many photos of my view, and not a single one of them gets close to doing the view any justice. Birds were chirping, which the other writers were able to name and identify, but with my ignorance of the animal kingdom I could only gaze on and appreciate their colours, and the flutter of their wings, and their uninhibited songs.
It really was tranquil and superb.
The first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was sigh and imitate Colin Firth in the film Love, Actually when he first arrives at his writing retreat in France.
“Alone again,” I muttered to the open window. “Naturally.”
And then the work began.
I looked over INVISIBLE BOYS – the manuscript that actually won me the residency – but there was really no further change I could make without wanting to heat up a hot poker and slide it slowly into my eyeball. I was done with it, for now. I’d just delivered a fresh revision to my agent and making any further changes would be counterproductive. Not to mention the whole poker/eyeball thing.
So I started work on my next novel instead. I had the deepest pangs of latent Catholic guilt about this and I was totally waiting for someone to turn around and boot me out of the house for working on a different piece than the one that won the award. Thankfully, the awesome people at the Australian Society of Authors (who offer the Ray Koppe Award) assured me this didn’t matter; as did the friendly team at Varuna House.
My next work in progress is a contemporary YA novel with a bit of a mystery element to it. It was originally conceived as a YA thriller and so I knew I had to do some work to rejig the outline and shift its focus and locus of control, as it were. I desperately wanted to just start throwing words on the page, but even though it would have felt productive, it would have been a Sisyphean task.
So I spent the whole day plotting. That’s it. All day. Plotting what would happen when. Changing characters’ names. Changing them all back two hours later. Deciding someone would die. Then saving them. Then killing them off again.
In the arvo, I went for a run around the nearby streets of Katoomba, which is the main town in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is such a beautiful town: green and lush with trees so much bigger than the dirt and scrub I grew up around.
What really threw me about Katoomba was how mountainous it was. Not just the nearby indigo shapes of the peaks: I mean just the streets themselves. I have never realised how incredibly flat Western Australia is compared to somewhere like the Blue Mountains. Every street was a massive slope, and I constantly felt like Atlas was about to shake the world globe and I’d go sliding off the face of the planet. On and off all week, I was actually pretty dizzy.
The run did me good after a day of heavy plotting. Sweating, getting back into my body, is some of the best healing I have found.
Wednesday 17th January 2018
When you’re a writer, and especially when you’re undertaking a residency, I think the expectation you put on yourself is that you will write a lot of pages. Pages are sexy.
But I spent Wednesday returning to my necessary outlining and planning documents, including Excel spreadsheets, which are the least sexy or creative thing in the entire universe.
The Varuna staff asked me if I wanted a writing consultation with an excellent editor who could help me with my work. I had to say no – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t afford it. That stung me, and made me feel like a bit of a lame duck.
Over the course of the day, I continued to work hard, but I started to feel frustrated. I wasn’t producing page after page of good writing. I wasn’t even producing page after page of shit writing that could be fixed later on. I was just plotting, and even though I knew it was necessary, I started to feel stagnant, like algae in a river’s listless meander.
In fact, I started to feel like a failure. And then a fraud. What kind of useless writer was I? Fucking around with plots and plans when the other four around me were probably churning out literary masterpieces with panache. Oh God. I’d actually won this place. Some very esteemed judges picked my writing over every other entrant’s.
And here I was screwing around in my spreadsheet. I bet the other entrants would have done so much better than me. Written more than me.
I spiralled down. Big time.
That night at dinner, the imposter syndrome ramped up to eleven. I don’t really know why, but probably because of the spiral I was already in, my insecurities got amplified.
Incidentally, one of my favourite things about the entire Varuna experience was that every night, all five resident authors come together in the dining room and share a catered meal together. The food by the amazing cook Sheila was delicious; the conversation was always vibrant and there was plenty of laughter.
There was also so much to learn from my fellow writers. About writing, about craft, about passion, about publishing, about promotion, about sales, about business. About being an artist.
This is, in fact, one of the most valuable things about being a Varuna writer. Having dinner and conversation with a diverse group of both emerging, developing and established authors every night for a week goes beyond even the best networking. I would liken it to being on summer camp. There’s something about sharing a living space with a group of people that bonds you in some way. It was truly an uplifting experience, and I grew from it – as an artist and as a man.
On the Wednesday night, however, I was spiralling hard. No matter what progress I make in my career as an author, I inevitably find myself feeling like an imposter. That night, as all these published and successful people sat around the table talking about something highly intellectual, I felt like the dumb outsider, the uncultured and poorly-read bogan, the country boy who for a whole number of reasons did not belong at that table, and never would.
I didn’t sleep that night.
Thursday 18th January 2018
When I say I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, I’m exaggerating a touch. I crashed for three hours after chatting to my fiancé over text (silence is vital in the rooms at Varuna as the walls are thin and other writers might be concentrating). But I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. My synapses were sparking, still short-circuiting with the fear I didn’t belong here.
I opened the curtains of the Bear Room at around 4am. I listened to some music in my earphones and watched the sky outside slowly change colour, quietly hoping I could trick myself into sleep somehow.
It didn’t work.
I was utterly wrecked on Thursday. I opened my laptop and felt like throwing up. Nope. Not today.
Instead, I read a novel: Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. An excellent piece of fantasy spliced with sci-fi (or maybe the other way around).
I tried naps. They failed.
In the arvo, I abandoned trying to rest or trying to write. I put on my cap and my backpack and went for a hike up to Echo Point, which is where you can see the natural rock formations known as the Three Sisters. It was incredible to face out onto an open green valley and feel so tiny compared to the earth and its body.
There was a bar close to Echo Point. I went out onto the terrace which overhung the verdant valley. I drank lemonade over ice, stared out at nature, listened to tourists speaking foreign tongues around me, and wrote several pages of notes in the monogrammed Moleskine journal my agent gave me for Christmas.
I walked back to Varuna, thinking the walk would have exhausted me enough for a late arvo nap, but no cigar. I was at that point where tiredness turns to astonishment that you can possibly still be awake.
Dinner that night was the best one of my whole stay at Varuna. Not in terms of the food – that was uniformly delicious – but the banter. The night started on a positive note, with fellow Varuna resident Miranda Luby finding out she had a short story shortlisted for an award. The spirit among everyone was one of congratulations and collegiality.
After our usual dinner conversation we went off on a tangent talking about words we each despise – stuff like the ambiguous “inappropriate” or actually saying the word “hashtag”. My word was “impactful”. It crops up more and more each year but it is NOT a bloody word. And even if “impactful” becomes a recognised word by some shitty dictionary, it shall nevertheless forever remain a hideously inelegant one.
Back in the Bear Room, sleep finally hit me, like a house brick to the face.
Friday 19th January 2018
It’s not until you wake up feeling human again that you realise you weren’t feeling human before. Friday morning did that: it was like I’d been booked into the Pokémon Centre overnight and was now at full HP and fighting fit again (thanks, Nurse Joy!).
So battle, at last, I did.
Friday was the day where the writing finally flowed. I wrote about 2000 words, which is more than my daily average when I do something like NaNoWriMo, so I’d call it a success. I reckon it felt especially exultant after the nadir of the previous couple of days.
There was a relief that came with writing what was basically the first chapter of my new novel. The pressure valve was released. I didn’t feel like a total fuck-up. And when I closed my laptop late that afternoon, I felt like I’d actually achieved some of what I was sent here to do.
It made for an uplifting end to the week. I went to the local Katoomba shire gym (which, for any future resident’s knowledge, requires you to traverse one of the steepest slopes in town). I lifted weights. Sheila made us all pizza for tea. It was excellent.
At about 9:30pm I went for a night-time stroll down the main drag of Katoomba. With everyone else silent in their rooms, and after five days without a television or other background noise in the house, I desperately needed to be around some sound and movement.
I ended up at the Station Bar in the heart of Katoomba. Two hours of soul-replenishing live rock ‘n’ roll.
Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2018
After finally churning out some pages and making good progress on my novel, I relaxed a bit on the weekend – both Saturday and Sunday. I made time to finally explore Katoomba in more depth, by which I mostly mean I ate a lot of food. Gelato, waffles, coffee, baked goods, pretty much anything that I shouldn’t have been eating.
I also went to a local barber and got a haircut (the Mohawk doesn’t trim itself) and walked around a classic car convention that had taken over the main street. Katoomba has an artsy, touristy vibe the way WA’s South West towns do – though it’s probably amped up a lot more.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Varuna is that each room has its own library, which is fundamentally cool. Even better, each library is different to the other in terms of the geographic origin of its tomes. For instance, one of the rooms might have Asian fiction, a second one might just have Australian books, and so on.
The Bear Room was home to the European Collection, and the calibre of novelists and writers and thinkers on the shelf beside me was unbelievable. I felt quite humbled, looking at these famous spines and titles, some of them household names and some of them quite unknown to me but critically acclaimed and influential writers of their times.
This also reignited the ambition flame in me: I want to be like them. I want to my books on these shelves. I want my name on spines.
I flicked through some books and read what I could, but there wasn’t time for everything. The piece I remember best was a story called “Adam, One Afternoon” in a collection by Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino. It sticks in my mind because it was so incredibly light and very odd and unsettling at the same time. The flow of the writing was somehow hypnotic and I both liked and was unnerved by it.
The other aspect of Varuna that I haven’t really talked about is the fellow writers. I am reticent to go into too much detail about the other authors I stayed with, because I guess that’s their story and I don’t know how much detail they like to share about their jaunts and residencies. They may be intensely private people, so I’ve kept this part minimal.
But honestly, the other authors are such a massive part of what makes a residency at Varuna worthwhile. I learned so much from them in different ways.
Gabrielle Carey (non-fiction author, and co-author of the very famous novel Puberty Blues) had some real insights on the publishing industry. She also holds the distinct honour of being the person who (very generously) taught me step by step how to make percolated coffee when she found me bumbling around the Varuna kitchen on my first day.
Stuart Cooke (published poet and academic) shared so much about the inner workings of the poetry world, and of the difference between poetry in different languages. He is also well-versed in cat videos and is the most proficient dishwasher stacker known to man.
Nandi Chinna (poet, essayist, eco-activist) has one of the most friendly spirits of any human I’ve encountered. Apart from making me feel exceedingly welcome, she also taught me a lot about publishing, and poetry, and ecology, and birds. She also made me stop beating myself up about not making progress and stressed the importance of taking break days – which was vital to getting through my Varuna experience with my ego intact.
Miranda Luby (fellow YA author) was a kindred spirit in a lot of ways. We both write YA fiction; we’re both emerging authors; we’re both enjoying the last of our twenties; and we are both ambitious and relentless in our drive to get our debut novels published. I had a fantastic time connecting with Miranda and we’ve continued to connect on social media. Watch out for this one – I think her debut novel will do big things, and I’m kind of quietly hoping we’ll both end up on some YA author panel at a festival a few years from now.
I think the main thing I want to point out here is that the five of us were all so different from one another. Non-fiction authors. Academics. Poets. YA contemporary and YA fantasy authors. Despite my insecurities earlier in the week, by the time it came to Sunday night dinner I realised Varuna House is a place for all writers. We all belonged there.
Even displaced country boys who write YA fiction.
Monday 22nd January 2018
Miranda and I left Varuna in a taxi Nandi had kindly arranged for us. As the taxi arrived, I realised I hadn’t written in the Varuna guest book, so I dashed out the quickest and most uninspired message in history while the taxi driver waited. Then, duty done, I fled.
I had a great chat with Miranda on the journey back to Sydney. And as viridian mountains receded to the fumes and umber of the outer suburbs, I realised this whole adventure really was over. I felt like an American kid coming back from summer camp. I’d learned a lot. I’d seen new places. I’d made new friends. And I wanted to come back again next summer, preferably for even longer.
So many published authors tell younger writers that the key to success is to “write every day”. The spectre of this advice cast a long shadow over my stay at Varuna, until I recently saw a tweet by bestselling fantasy author Garth Nix.
Garth made a point that writing every day does not necessarily mean pumping out words of usable prose daily. It also means outlining. Dreaming. Plotting. Picking character names. Making Excel spreadsheets for chapter outlines. Writing a sentence and deleting it. Jotting down notes in a journal. Exploring a new place. Reading books and finding inspiration. Even just staring into space thinking about what you’re going to do next with the unwieldy blob of clay that is your work in progress.
And Varuna made all of that happen for me. I got a lot done. I made some progress on my next novel. I learned about writing and editing and publishing. I learned about mountains and birds and nature and poems. I learned about myself and I slayed a few demons (or at the very least, I fired some warning shots across their noses).
I have to thank everyone who made this experience possible for me: the awesome team at the Australian Society of Authors; Ray Koppe and the Koppe family for their generous legacy and gift; the award judges Tristan Bancks and Aoife Clifford for thinking INVISIBLE BOYS was good enough; and the team at Varuna who were so willing to help with anything I needed during my stay.
If you’re ever considering a residency at Varuna, or anywhere else, do it.
Especially do it if you think you’re not good enough, or that you won’t belong there, because you might just get lucky and discover that you are, and you do.
Inspiration always strikes at the least convenient of times.
This morning, it was just as I was about to leave the gym. I went for an hour’s run, pushing through the crusty fatigue of having returned to work this week, and I was riding a nice sweat-coated endorphin high.
As I refilled my water bottle (the gym’s water is so much cooler than my tap at home), I passed by one of the workers from the gym’s creche carrying a kid down the corridor. She said something dumb in that inane “I’m dealing with a child” kind of voice, jollying the toddler along, and it triggered some strange melange of memory and thought in my brain.
And, BAM, just like that: inspiration.
By the time I reached the car park, I had lines of written expression cascading out of my pores like water overfilling a swimming pool. As soon as I got into the car, I put the windows down (it was bloody warm) and grasped at my phone to open the Memo app. A few disjointed lines of what I thought was a poem gushed out of my fingertips and onto the screen.
Now, despite being pretty comfortable calling myself a writer, that usually extends only to the world of prose and, every so often, a brief foray into journalism (after which I usually retreat for a bit). But poet is not a word I am comfortable using on myself.
It’s not that I haven’t written poetry over the years. I went through a particularly prolific period from about 2005-2009 where I wrote notebooks and notebooks absolutely filled with poems and lyrics and stream-of-consciousness ramblings and other art.
And I did dabble in taking this a bit more seriously at uni, around 2008-2009, when I crafted a couple of cycles of poems that I actually thought were not half bad and my lecturers liked them enough, too. One longer collection of poems from 2009, GOOD BOYS, is actually something I’d love to revisit one day, because it was the first time I made a genuine attempt to tackle the themes and tone and style of what has now become my debut novel manuscript, INVISIBLE BOYS.
Nevertheless, I know my own skills well enough to know poetry isn’t really something I am going to pursue at a professional level. So, I spent the drive home wondering what to do with this piece. I figured I might chuck it up here on the blog, or even make it into a graphic and share it on Instagram and Twitter and, maybe if I was willing to be criticised by people in my family, even Facebook.
Once home, I chugged through my usual morning routine. This usually consists of:
submerging my soul in a hot shower;
meticulously weighing and consuming oats, protein powder and egg whites (I eat for performance, not taste, during the week, as my trainer invariably reminds me); and
singing unabashedly into the empty, but very receptive, living room (today’s selected tune was John Butler Trio’s 2011 album track To Look Like You).
Mid-morning, I sat down at the laptop ready to work on my second novel, for which I really need a working title that I can share, because I don’t want to share the actual working title yet as it lets on a little too much, I reckon. I’ll make something up soon. It will be a working-working title.
Anyway, I open the word document and WHOOSH. It’s not the novel that explodes from the tips of my fingers like blue streamers of electricity: it’s that damn poem again! Only this time, it’s magically rearranging itself into full sentences … and … aha!
Turns out it was prose all along; the poem I spat out in the car was just a Metapod that, once given the right space, burst free from its cocoon and spread its wings as a glorious Butterfree.
I now have in my possession a sharp, 94-word piece of flash fiction titled VIOLET.
I might try to find a home for this one – maybe a competition, or a journal, or something along those lines. This one tapped into some old feelings – fear, bitterness, anger – so it’s going to be a spiky one and I almost dread certain people reading it.
Yet, at the same time, I want them to read it because I want them to know.
Short post today just to share that I have finally got my arse into gear and signed up to Instagram. I guess all my random folded-arm selfies will now have a proper home at last! I’m really looking forward to sharing more this year – not just as a writer, but as a human being.
Hope to see some of you over on Insta! Does anyone have any tips on how to use it well? I feel like I finally got the hang of Twitter only to throw myself into the deep end with a completely different platform. I get the sense that hashtags are used more strategically – and excessively – than on Twitter, yes?
I’ve promised a blog post about my recent writing residency at Varuna House, and it’s coming soon – stay tuned.
One day in 1995, I rocked up to primary school to see a whole bunch of classmates gathered around an enclave behind the Year 2 classroom. Someone had scrawled an angry message in black Artline texta on the otherwise non-threatening beige bricks. The message read:
“Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” – Alanis Morissette
Keep in mind we were all seven years old, so we were mystified by this strange message which actually contained One Of The Really Bad Swear Words. Now, one of the other kids alerted us that the teacher was coming, so we raced back to line up for class, and I suspect for everyone else that was the end of the mystery.
But my curious little sponge-brain kept churning. Who was this mysterious Alanis Morissette? Was he the dodgy guy who roamed around in the bushland next to our school? Was he a killer? Was he threatening to fuck someone, whatever ‘fuck’ actually meant? I was quite convinced I’d found a clue to some kind of local murder case. Of course, being seven, I eventually forgot about the brewing criminal investigation, failed to inform the Geraldton Police, and went back to learning my times tables.
I was too young to place the name – but looking back, I can clearly recall that was my first exposure to the woman who would, some years later, become my favourite musical artist of all time.
Over the next decade my awareness grew a tiny bit. I had a vague knowledge of Alanis Morissette as some angry chick with a harmonica on the radio. I heard her thank India on the radio when I was ten years old but never knew it was her song.
It was in 2004 that something significant happened. I was draped over the couch one Sunday and my dad was reading the entertainment magazine that came inside the weekend newspaper.
“Hey, you know that Alanis Morissette?” he asked me. (Everyone’s name has a “that” before it when my dad uses it.)
“Yeah.” The local bushland killer guy. No. Wait. Famous singer-songwriter bird. “What about her?”
“She says in this interview that she wanted to kill herself back when she was younger. Can you imagine? All that fame and money and she still wanted to top herself.”
And that little factoid got stored in my brain. I didn’t dwell on it that day – I went back to whatever I spent my weekends doing at sixteen, which was probably either working on my awesome Pokemon fanfiction (it was super cool, thanks) or planning how to sneak away for my next wank.
A few weeks later, maybe, I heard Alanis’ single “Out is Through” on the radio and watched the video on Rage with my little sister. I liked it enough to wait for it to come on the radio and tape it on a cassette to listen to later, and it ended up as a mediocre track on one of my many top 40 mixes.
In 2006, a German girl I met while backpacking through Europe burned me a mix CD for my discman (I’d got with the times). Track 4 of that album was Alanis’ song “Everything”. It was a nice enough song.
The reason I list all these little touchpoints is because even though I knew who and what Alanis was by this point in my life, she was always just another singer-songwriter. Pleasing to the ear; lyrically skilful; beautiful voice. But nothing groundbreaking. I was quite heavily into Killing Heidi and The Offspring and The Darkness and solo artists didn’t really enter that equation.
It was in 2007 that everything changed. I was on a trip to Melbourne with my family to see Collingwood play at the MCG, and at some point later that week we wound up in a record shop. I had grown my hair long and my face was covered in typical eighteen-year-old bumfluff and I was in a moody depressive haze, and suddenly while flicking through CDs I came across a purple disc with a hand on the cover.
Alanis Morissette: The Collection.
And immediately, I heard my Dad’s voice from three years before. She wanted to kill herself.
It meant nothing to me in 2004, but everything to me in 2007, because by then, in that very moment, I was a rage-filled, repressed, suicidal timebomb and I was ready to explode.
Compelled, I bought the album and went straight to the hotel, put my earphones in and listened to it.
It was a song called Eight Easy Steps that changed my life. These lyrics, in particular, struck a chord inside me so deep that my soul reverberated until my teeth shook:
How to lie to yourself and thereby to everyone else
How to keep smiling when you’re thinking of killing yourself
How to numb à la ‘holic to avoid going within
How to stay stuck in blue by blaming them for everything
I’ll teach you all this in eight easy steps
The course of a lifetime, you’ll never forget
I’ll show you how to in eight easy steps
I’ll show you how leadership looks when taught by the best
I was stunned. She knew. She knew what this shit felt like. Real shit. And she knew exactly how I was feeling. She had written it down and articulated it in a way I didn’t have the skills, or emotional capacity or distance, to do. I’d never heard someone sing about wanting to kill themselves in such a way.
And all I could think was, “well, she’s still alive, so maybe she knows something I don’t”.
And so, I let Alanis Morissette show me how leadership looks. I followed her songs, one by one through YouTube searches, and became more and more amazed at her lyrical and musical artistry. I found the 1998 hard rocker “Joining You” on a YouTube video about gay suicide and must have played it a hundred times before finally going to a local record shop to buy the album it came from, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
Junkie was the first studio record of Alanis’ I heard, and it remains my favourite album of all time to this day. It is a sprawling mess of dirty riffs, drum loops, Eastern-influenced strings and dark, experimental lyrics, and each song was – and still is – like therapy. Before long, I’d worked my way through Alanis Morissette’s entire discography.
People who know me personally already know that I am a huge fan, but they may not know the extent to which Alanis’ music quite literally saved my life.
When I describe myself as a timebomb in that era, I mean I was a mess of sparking, short-circuiting emotions and I had no way of processing or understanding them. That changed when I found this artist. Her music and lyrics helped me to get through each black day. They made me unravel and try to understand myself. They eventually made me want to keep living.
“Joining You” and “Eight Easy Steps” and “Can’t Not” and so many other songs helped me tackle the dark shit in my head.
“Right Through You” and “Sympathetic Character” and “Not The Doctor” helped me to channel my rage.
“I Was Hoping” and “Hands Clean” helped me rethink and reprocess my teenage dalliances with much older men.
And beyond helping me endure the hardest times and make sense of the mess that was my own brain, Alanis’ approach to art informed my own. I became utterly convinced that good art is honest art. Art that is unflinching and unfettered; art that speaks to what hurts more than anything else; art that yields to no sacred cows, but speaks the truth regardless of fallout.
It is a philosophy that now, in 2018, is at the very core of who I am as a writer and an artist. It’s what made me throw caution to the wind and write my novel INVISIBLE BOYS, which is, upon reflection, incredibly unabashed and honest.
This same drive is now burning anew in my chest since last night’s concert, when I saw Alanis perform at the ICC Theatre in Sydney. The way the songs connected directly to my inner self, like a lariat of healing wrapped around my heart, brought tears to my eyes again. Her voice during Mary Jane reminded me of the power of putting all your emotion into something. Her delivery of You Oughta Know recalled the power of channelling truth into art.
And so I’m revitalised for 2018 – not just to write another novel, but to write a novel that brims with honest emotion. Honest and unfettered expression is my ultimate paragon in this quest, and I can’t wait to see that spill across the page.
It’s hard being an artist and it’s hard being a sensitive person. But it’s a little easier when someone leads the way and somehow manages to understand and express your inexpressible feelings for you.
This past week I’ve been marvelling – like a bit of a glazed-eyed idiot – at how incredible it feels to do nothing. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped everything. No work. No writing. No being productive, or responsible, or busy. Not even my usual obsessive checking of my work emails on my phone. Rien. Nada. Niente.
And fuck, it feels amazing. I feel more like a human being and less of a worker bee.
It’s strange how one man’s epiphany can be entirely obvious to someone else, though. We’ve had my sister and her boyfriend staying with us for a few weeks over the summer. Most mornings, my sister will take a cup of English Breakfast tea out onto the patio and I’ll follow her out there with my protein shake (an unholy melange of whey isolate protein and three or four raw egg whites). We chat for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, before beginning our respective days, and each morning I’ve waxed lyrical about how good it has felt to stop. She has fixed me with a dead-eyed stare each time, like I’m some unique new specie of moron she has not yet been trained to deal with.
It struck me, at this point, that I’m not quite normal, because most people DO stop, all the time, and so being mystified by the experience seems ridiculous. My sister works incredibly hard as a nurse, often working night shifts and usually with some intensely challenging patients, and she knows full well the value of downtime. She curls up with her boyfriend and watches TV and just veges the fuck out.
I’ve always been a bit of a high-functioning humanoid since my youth: working hard, taking on more and more stuff, seeking more information and input and stimuli. But I think when I was a kid I took a lot more time to chill. When I reflect on my past year – in fact, every year I can remember for the last decade – I feel like all I’ve been doing is hurtling through each day. Meetings for this job. Classes to teach for the other jobs. Do some emails for the fourth job. Work work work work work. (Insert either a Fifth Harmony or Rihanna intonation here – your choice.)
Yesterday I was listening to a podcast with American therapist Dr Bryan Robinson, who is an expert on work addiction, and a lot of what he described rang true for me in terms of my hectic approach to life. I overtax myself to the point of burnout quite regularly, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times previously on this blog. My modus operandi is to hurtle through one week, and the next, and I keep hurtling until I crash.
And I don’t react normally to a crash. I think a realistic reaction would be:
HOLY SHIT, GUYS, THE CAR’S CRASHED AND IT’S ON FIRE. GET SOME WATER OVER HERE. PUT THE FIRE OUT. YANK THE DRIVER OUT FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL AND WRAP HIM IN ONE OF THOSE SILVER SHEETS AND GIVE HIM A DRINK. REST, SON. JUST REST.
And for myriad reasons that I’d need a counsellor to drill down into accurately, my reaction has always been:
Well, the car’s crashed and it’s burning around me. Let’s see if I can get the motor running again. Oh, sweet, the engine turned over. Great. Let me just shake this glass out of my hair and then I can get this bastard on the freeway again. Why does it smell like smoke and burning rubber in here? Vroom!
You don’t need any more car crash metaphors to get the idea.
I’ll try not to beat up on myself for being the guy who just realised that resting and recharging is a bloody good idea. Instead I’ll just extol its virtues, and learn to do this more often, because it’s brought me back to the kind of guy I actually want to be. I feel like myself more than I have in a fair while, because I’m actually taking time for myself.
So what has stopping actually looked like for me this summer? So far it’s meant:
Working Out: This is my favourite release and the most enjoyable pastime I have outside of writing. I like being a cerebral and creative person, but I also love getting the hell out of my mind and into my body and just being a meathead for an hour or two each day. Getting down to the gym and lifting weights is a great workout (and release) and sprinting or cycling or jumping or climbing burns so much nervous fuel and energy it’s better than any drug.
Reading: I’ve been working my way through Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – a book I actually didn’t think had hooked me at first, but about 100+ pages in, it snared me and now I really want to see where it goes.
Gaming: My boyfriend, who is a hardcore gamer with the headset and mic and keyboard and all, is always at pains to remind me I’m a casual gamer, not a “real” one. Still, I love spending hours just playing a good game. This summer I’ve been hooked on the latest Call of Duty (I love a good FPS; WWII is such a return to form) and Cities: Skylines (geeky af but I love building cities).
Soaking up some sun: Now that the sun’s out, I’m spending at least half an hour a day just sitting in the sun and working on my tan. I’m supposed to be an olive-skinned Sicilian, but winter always leaves me looking like a pale pommy bastard, so a bit of sun goes a long way.
It’s been a great 11 days so far and I’m so glad I took the time to stop properly. I won’t forget how important this is, and I’ll make sure to do it again soon. I’ve got a couple more days of chilling out, and then I’ll be flying across to the other side of the country for two weeks to get stuck into some work.
My writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House (in the Blue Mountains), begins next week and I reckon it’s going to be an incredible experience. I’ll be given a room and a studio to work from and a whole week to work on my next novel – which is so unreal. To have no distractions or responsibilities for a week, and just be able to focus on my writing, is a dream come true.
Stay tuned – I’ll share updates from the week and definitely some photos. Apparently there are beautiful sights up in the Blue Mountains!