I’m Not Growing Up, I’m Just Burning Out

Last week I wrote about some crappy days full of mid-level SNAFUs. This week started in a similar vein. My calendar was like a line of sadistic babushka dolls: opening each one revealed a new day filled with even more heinous fuckery than the last.

babushka dolls
Each one just a little more evil than the last. That baby one looks shifty AF.

It was a full-on week because one of my programs at work launches next week, so there was heaps to do. Trying to get my emails down was about as useful as bringing sponges to soak up a flood. Actually, a flood is an apt metaphor: all week, I felt like I was standing downstream from a dam about to burst. I accumulated a constant headache, which I carried all week, along with a mouth ulcer.

These are the body’s ways of telling you to slow the fuck down, so praise be to Rebecca Black that it’s Friday the weekend.

I’ve taken on a lot. July was going to be a break but, even in addition to my day jobs and their deadlines, it’s been an enormous month. I undertook Camp NaNoWriMo, and have so far written 47,000 words of my 50,000 word target so far. I published THE BLACK FLOWER, which is seriously more work than anyone outside the indie publishing game would probably believe. I submitted a whole bunch of applications for writing stuff that kept me up into the wee hours each morning. I smashed through a weight-loss goal at the gym, which has been a long time coming and was a big moment.

There was also an awesome part of the week – involving my first radio performance and

2. The Scroll of Isidor - Cover
Sales of THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR surged this week: it has reached #3 on the iBooks Epic Fantasy Chart.

interview as a writer – but I will blog about that next week, as well as share the recording of the show. As a sidebar, the promo gave me a huge spike in sales, and got THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR to chart at #3 on the Epic Fantasy chart on iBooks – but again, I’ll expand on that another day.

Right now, the point is this: all of those things demanded time and energy, and by the time I got to Friday, I discovered I had nothing left to give.

I was knocking on burnout’s door.

I’m not even kidding. After I did some work at a local library on Friday afternoon, I was meant to go home and get on top of some other projects from my home office.

But I couldn’t. Not ‘I didn’t want to’. I couldn’t. My brain had finally overloaded. I’d hit a wall, like JD in that episode of Scrubs where he tries to do a triathlon.

I started thinking about a lyric from a Green Day song I like called Burnout: “I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out.” Yep, sounds about right. You would think with age comes wisdom, but nope: the older I get the more I realise my growth does not inhibit my capacity to make terrible choices when it comes to taking too much on all at once.

So, instead of working any further, I went into a kind of burnt-out, shell-shocked stupor for about an hour. I sat down and read some stuff in the library, trance-like. Then I had ice cream for lunch (this is what happens when you stop giving a fuck) and sat in the local ice cream parlour staring through the window at the people racing by to complete their errands. I was frozen with inertia, and had absolutely no capacity or desire to join these fools in their rushing panics, even though I was one of them. I desperately needed to plug myself in and recharge before I could do anything the world needed of me.

rebecca black
But it’s Saturday. You’re too late, Rebecca Black. TOO LATE.

I suppose normal humanoids who know how to take care of themselves call this a “lunch break”. I never give myself enough downtime. But, though unplanned, the break gave me enough joules to function again. I pushed through the last series of work and errands for the day, and then, finally, at around 7pm, my day was done. I got my arse to the gym. Running and lifting are the best ways I know to de-stress. Sweating gets me out of my head and into my body.

And I ran fast, like a barefoot bogan on a Geraldton footpath in February.

Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein had me almost headbanging on the treadmill.

And then a steaming hot shower. Denouement.

Self-care is so vital for everyone, but it’s a hard thing to manage for artists in particular – or entrepreneurs – or, really, anyone who’s trying to juggle multiple priorities in their life without losing the plot.

There are two perspectives on this.

One person, who is a bit of a self-care guru, recently looked at my schedule for July and exclaimed, “THAT’S your month off?”

Another person, who is a little more business-minded, said, “Yes, but you’re a writer. You’re the same as an entrepreneur. You’ve gotta hustle.”

I think both are right.

I work hard because I know that I must, if I am to get what I want. My dream will not see fruition if I don’t drive it. The whip must be cracked.

But at the same time, if I crack the whip too hard, I won’t just have a broken whip: I’ll have a broken back.

I don’t want to lead a life that is stressed-out, unhappy, boring and dull – which is what this past week or two has been like. If I wanted that, I would never have quit the 9 to 5 rat race.

replace-burnout
Life goals.

But I did quit it. Because I want something different. I want to live, dammit! I want to have fun. I want to have the energy to do stuff I like doing.

So that means I need to start taking care of myself a whole lot better. It won’t happen overnight, so let’s call this a work in progress.

Are you an artist, or an entrepreneur, or just anyone who works hard at their dreams or goals? How do you find a way to switch off and wind down?

Holden

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A Bad Day at Work vs A Bad Day at Dream

Man, it’s a hell of a lot of work to chase an artistic dream.

A lot of hard, tiring, unpaid work, to be precise.

And, to be really honest, as much as you’ll usually hear me beaming about how much the pursuit of my dream animates me – and it does – some days are better than others.

There are days where the chase is pure elation, and each microscopic win feels like running across the finish line of a marathon: you finish a chapter, you get an unexpected book review, a blog comment makes you smile, or a tweet goes mildly viral.

And then there are days where everything is a giant mess of shit.

You spend hours fiddling with formatting a table of contents, for instance. Or you are stuck copy-editing (or worse, proofreading) a short story before you submit it to prizes or journals. You tweet and nobody retweets it; you post on Facebook and nobody likes it; you blog and it is met with resounding indifference (you can only imagine the precipice my mood rests upon in writing this very post …).

Unlike a day job, you don’t get a paycheck at the end of a bad day as an artist. You just have a really shitty day. In fact, in economic terms, you theoretically lost money, because of the opportunity cost of spending two or three or ten hours working on your fledgling artistic career.

I’ve had a run of great writing days recently, as I plough through my second novel for Camp NaNoWriMo. My project is currently sitting at about 37,000 words (out of a goal of 50,000), so I’m closing in on my target.

But despite that success, there have also been a couple of really frustrating days in the past week where everything seemed to go wrong at once. Nothing catastrophic, just some medium-grade SNAFUs.

Today was one of them: a head-desk, “why me?” kind of day. I think I thought I was further ahead in my career than I really was, in some ways, and that crashed down all around me. I’m still torn between wanting to sweep everything off my desk in a melodramatic writery tantrum and wanting to curl up into the fetal position and rock myself to sleep.

I am also considering the sage counsel of the little girl from the Old El Paso ad: “Why not both?”

But, of all things, something that happened at work yesterday made me feel better about the whole mess.

Like a lot of writers/dreamers, I have a range of casual jobs to keep my head above water and my arse off the street corner, so to speak.¬†Some of my jobs are more highly paid than others – and one of them, in particular, is now a couple of grades lower than I’m worth, so I pitched to my boss that I ought to have my position promoted.

My pitch was declined. I felt deflated and considerably undervalued, but I went about my day after that.

But when I thought about these crappy last couple of days, I realised something.

While I felt undervalued in my day job, where I am paid decently, I didn’t feel undervalued as a writer.

This is even though I am paid nothing.

If I look at the last month of preparing my new e-book, THE BLACK FLOWER, for publication, I was paid exactly $0.00 for every hour I spent writing, editing, proofing, formatting, blogging, marketing, submitting, designing, and so on. And there were many, many hours.

But even when everything seems to go wrong, not one second of this feels like a waste of my time, because every second of this journey makes me feel alive. Every moment spent wading through molasses towards my dream is a moment in which I am aligned with my personal quest in this life.

I am always energised by it, and never drained, despite the unpaid element to this journey. The bad days never deter me. They can’t.

Reflecting on this made me feel better, because I now realise a day of unpaid writing is more valuable than a paid day of work.

Tonight, I will make my choice between a raging tantrum or cocooning myself in a blanket.

And tomorrow, I will pick myself up, dust myself off, listen to some Alanis Morissette and get back on the horse.

I am not there yet.

The road ahead is still very long.

Holden

 

The First Female Doctor: When Politics Defeats Art

Well, it’s official.

Doctor Who has finally cast a female Doctor, with today’s announcement that Broadchurch actress Jodie Whittaker has been cast as the 13th iteration of the beloved Time Lord.

It is, in my opinion, a poor decision.

As a viewer of the show, I’m disappointed on two fronts.

Let’s get the first one out of the way quickly, because it’s minor compared to the second: if you were looking at a pool of Broadchurch actresses, why on earth would you cast the fairly lacklustre (and kind of sour) Beth Latimer when you had the incredible Detective Miller right under your nose? Olivia Coleman is a spectacular actress and has truckloads of charm. At least this wouldn’t bite quite so hard if the female doctor had been a superb and compelling choice of actress.

But, of course, my main disappointment comes from the casting of a female Doctor.

What? Holden, aren’t you a soft, sensitive, artsy, hippie, a-hug-will-fix-the-whole-world kind of guy? Aren’t you a self-confessed passionate humanist, secularist, and egalitarian?

Well, of course I am. That hasn’t changed. You’ll hear me champion human rights and equality and diverse voices until the cows come home.

I think it’s really sad, however, that the discourse around representation has become so vitriolic and acidic that even sharing your point of view about one single TV show has people trying to mischaracterise your entire political spectrum of views. So many have labelled fans’ disappointment in a female Doctor as some kind of unparallelled sexism, which is nonsense. Not only is that criticism off-base for male viewers, I have lost count of how many female friends and Whovians have said they want the Doctor to remain a man.

I personally happen to really enjoy shows with female protagonists in general. The reason I come to cherish these characters is usually nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with how well-drawn they are as characters. Those who are well-drawn are among my favourites: Sydney Bristow in Alias (one of my favourite TV heroes of all time), Buffy Summers, even Gal Gadot’s incredible recent portrayal of Wonder Woman. Hell, even when they aren’t technically the hero, sometimes the female lead steals the spotlight and at times you end up liking them more than the male lead (see: Hermione Granger, some depictions of Lois Lane).

And it’s not like we can’t deal with a female Time Lord in Doctor Who. I absolutely adore River Song – not because she has a vagina, but because she is an excellent, interesting character who is portrayed wonderfully by Alex Kingston. I cared much less for Missy, at least initially: despite Michelle Gomez being a top actress, I found the character a little overdone and forced for my liking. However, by the end of the latest season I think Missy’s character had made herself rather likeable.

So, why oppose a female Doctor if you’re pro-equality and enjoy female protagonists?

It’s because this casting decision was not an artistic decision.

It was a political decision.

Or rather, this was an artistic casting decision driven by political and cultural agendas of a pretty transparent nature.

It links in with the prominent cultural trend of locating straight, white males in art – whether film, television, video games, books, you name it – and supplanting them with anything that is at least one of the following:

  • not straight
  • not male
  • not white

If any casting decision meets any of these requirements, it will be hailed as progressive and forward-thinking.

I still struggle to fathom how people actually cling to these kinds of casting decisions as social progress.

Social progress with regards to these categories would be:

  • the first black US president (check);
  • the first female US president; or
  • the first openly gay US president.

Replace “US president” with any role or office in society, and you get the idea.

Now, this kind of social progress I can wave a flag for. As I often state, I’m a humanist, a secularist, and an egalitarian. Nobody’s personal characteristics should hinder their potential or their power in our society. We are all human beings, and therefore we are all of equal value. Full stop.

What I don’t understand is people doing the Twitter equivalent of holding up a protest banner and saying “it’s time” we had a black Superman or “we need” a gay James Bond or “it’s equality” to have a female Doctor.

NEWSFLASH! Fictional characters are not an office that can be held!

This is art.

What you actually care about is representation. What you want – as, frankly, most of us do – is strong female stars; interesting black leads; nuanced gay protagonists.

I do, too. I think that would be great, and I’d be interested to see more of it.

That isn’t what’s happening here.

What’s happening here is a politically-driven assassination, deconstruction and supplanting of straight, white male characters in our Western canon of fiction.

More accurately?

A removal of the heroes, protagonists and good guys who are straight, white and male.

The villains, I notice, are quite comfortably portrayed increasingly – and in some films, exclusively – as straight, white males. (I’m looking at you, Rogue One.)

The reason I like the Doctor as a character is because he is an interesting, nuanced male hero – and those are few and far between, these days. Male heroes, plenty of them, sure. But interesting, nuanced ones? Few. Far between.

Even more rare? A male hero who does not need to resort to violence to win a battle – or a war. A male hero who uses his intelligence to overcome aggression and rashness. A male hero who does not just defeat evil with good, but fights cruelty with kindness and hate with love.

There are so few male characters like this. Perhaps the Doctor is the only one.

Not anymore, of course.

There is a big difference between creating platforms, stories and roles for diverse voices, and retooling existing characters who are cherished and loved for political point-scoring and cultural virtue-signalling.

I am in favour of the former: it is a creative and joyous process, and it is the essence of what art is all about. As a writer, it is what I seek to do: create new characters who are diverse and interesting and well-drawn. This process will typically be well received by readers, viewers and fans.

I am, however, against the latter: it is a destructive and cynical approach to making art. It takes existing, beloved characters and turns them into a gender, a skin colour or a sexual orientation. It nullifies their specialness and makes them a tool for a cultural agenda. It’s also kind of insulting in the process: it suggests that a diverse lead will crash and burn unless it supplants an existing franchise led by a straight, white male with a large fan base. This process will typically be poorly received by readers, viewers and fans.

Today’s Doctor Who casting decision is the latter. It is political, it is on some level anti-male, and moreover, it is anti-art. This is cloying, mawkish politics fucking with art in the most obnoxious and boring of ways.

The intrusion of politics into art is always bloodless and unpalatable. Whether it is modern social justice warriors’ bullying agenda on our current media or whether it is social and moral puritans from the Victorian era through to now demanding censorship of anything deemed “immoral”, the result is usually the same.

The agenda nullifies the art, makes the art submit to it, extinguishes it.

Thankfully, artists have rejected this suppression since time immemorial, and there is no reason to think this will ever change.

I am disappointed by today’s news, but I am also re-energised for my own art.

I will continue to write literature and create art that forwards and amplifies diverse, original and different characters and their voices.

I do not need to destroy anyone else’s heroes to create my own.

Holden

So, at what point can you call yourself a Writer?

In the last year or so I’ve encountered so many writers at different stages of their journeys. Some of them have been published novelists sharing their wisdom at events or in webinars (or, sometimes, in Tweets). Others, like me, are submitting short stories to journals or working on their first or second novels, and making their first foray into the sharkly world of agents and editors. Many authors I meet on Twitter and through Camp NaNoWriMo, are indie authors, or describe themselves as aspiring authors. And still others are bloggers or freelancers, sharing their life experience with the cybersphere.

On some level, we are all the same: artists and creators grappling with words and our own fears to craft something amazing, painful and beautiful and bring it into the world.

And yet, sometimes it feels like we are worlds apart from one another – especially, I think, those of us who haven’t yet had our first full-length work published (like me).

So, with so many stages and forms of this authory career, I’ve been thinking a lot about at what point we feel comfortable actually calling ourselves “writers” – and it’s quite a telling point to ponder.

Business man and woman shaking hands.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m a writer. No further questions kthxbye.”

Being a writer is a strange identity to occupy. We are not like a boy having a father figure or other male role model to look up to as he becomes a man. We are not like a Catholic going to church and learning the norms and customs from the other parishioners around us. We may share blood with our parents, but we are rarely cut from the same cultural fabric: very few of us would be descended from acclaimed writers (and those who are should count their blessings in terms of the networks that opens up for them!).

No: us weird little writers tend to incubate in obscurity and isolation through our childhood, until adolescence spits us out and we realise we can’t survive without writing.

But when are we allowed to actually become a writer? Imagine meeting someone for the first time (maybe at a conference or event or dinner party) and, when they ask you what you do, you respond with, “I am a writer.”

At what point in your writing career does that become kosher? Or believable?

It’s a slippery concept, because success as a writer was traditionally – and still is – so inextricably (and agonisingly) tied to having a full-length book published by a traditional publishing house.

Business People At The Meeting
You seem nice. Please, just take another free quiche and leave me the hell alone so I can dwell on my raging insecurities.

As a hangover from this – or, perhaps, as a mirror of our Western drive for achievement and validation – many writers do not publicly identify as such until they have a book published.

Many of us – especially the sensies among our ranks – experience the imposter syndrome. We really do fear that if we call ourselves writers, the logical next question from a well-meaning inquirer will do to us what a lawnmower does to a blade of grass:

“Oh, you’re a writer. So, what have you written?”

PANIC STATIONS!

Our fledgling writer turns heel and foots it out of dodge, with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting in his ears.

There is nothing more gut-wrenchingly, colon-emptyingly awkward and terrifying as calling yourself a writer and then mumbling a response to THAT QUESTION.

“Oh, nothing published yet,” you say, eyes down, desperate to get the heat off you.

the cool s
Remember these from Year 5?

All you want in that moment is for the person you’re talking to to go the hell back to the buffet table and freeload on some more spinach and feta quiches.

Many will find a way around this, and call themselves “aspiring writers”, but I actually feel quite passionately that this term is a misnomer. In fact, I actively encourage my students and writer friends not to call themselves this.

In my logic, an “aspiring writer” is someone who wants to write. You SHOULD call yourself an aspiring writer if you dream of one day writing an amazing novel, but you don’t know where to start, and you haven’t tried to write it yet, and it’s been seven years and all you have is a notebook with doodles of that cool stone S everyone used to draw in like Year 5.

HOWEVER.

If:

  • you are trying to write your first novel and have notebooks and MS word documents and Scrivener files full of first pages and first chapters; OR
  • you are practising writing short stories, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, scripts, whatever …

Then I would recommend you call yourself the dreaded Writer with a capital W.

Because despite the earthquakes of self-doubt that fracture your little writer heart every few weeks, or days, or hours, you are physically writing.

You are trying.

You are on your way and you are putting in all the blood, sweat and tears your caffeine-dehydrated body can afford to spare.

You are a writer.

writer not sane
Pretty much …

It does not matter one iota that nobody big and powerful and serious and acclaimed has yet recognised your genius, nor whether they have read your stuff, called it untalented tripe and kicked you twice in the kidney, leaving you in the gutter to die an artist’s death.

You are still a writer.

What defines us is our action and our spirit.

Our identity as writers is not tied to the quality of our work (how else would bad writers exist?) nor our publication status.

Personally, I thought of myself as a writer and was writing on and off from the age of seven, but I never dared to call myself one in public until my first short story was picked up and published in a literary journal when I was 20.

Until then, it seemed like Narcissus-level hubris to take on the moniker shared by King, Rowling, Tolkien and others.

But you know what? It still feels like that. Getting one short story published didn’t change that. Two didn’t. A bunch of journalistic stuff didn’t change it either.

And a lot of authors will testify that even getting one or two novels published still doesn’t change the sense that you’re not quite good enough yet.

Every time you introduce yourself as a writer, you’re waiting for Frau Farbissina to burst out from behind the bain maries at the networking dinner and scream, “LIES! ALL LIES!”

But really, I should have called myself a writer earlier, because (1) I have the spirit of whatever the fuck it is that makes us all creative and slightly cuckoo bubbling through my blood, and (2) I was writing actively, which satisfies my main criterion.

frau
When you have the audacity to introduce yourself as a writer.

I should have called myself a writer when I penned my little short story homage to Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” in my first year of uni.

I should have called myself a writer when I started writing my Pokemon fanfiction in 2001.

I should have called myself a writer when I was seven and writing about co-ed twelve year olds falling off Cornwall cliffs.

I do call myself a writer nowadays. In fact, I’ve been trying to consciously make myself say “writer” instead of my day jobs when people ask me what I do. It’s still a challenge in resolve, but I’m starting to actually do it.

You should, too.

If you write, call yourself a writer and cast aside the “aspiring writer” exercise in nervous hedging. You do not have to have anything published, or even finished, to be a real writer. You can survive telling a stranger that you aren’t yet published.

Just start writing, and carry yourself with the confidence of knowing you are a writer, just like Rowling. Sure, we may be less famous and poorer and less masterful, but we are still undeniably part of the same club. It’s just that we don’t have seats at the table yet.

You have to take yourself seriously as a writer to become a serious writer. And nobody else will ever take you seriously as a writer if you don’t.

Holden

I’m going to summer camp! But it’s not summer! And I’m not really going anywhere!

Since it was half-way through 2017 last week, I took the opportunity to look over my plans for the month ahead.

To my delight, my schedule – which is a hyper-organised, multicoloured Monica Geller wet dream sort of affair – for once did not seem to reflect someone on the verge of burnout.

In a nice change, for the first time since February this year, there was a whole heap of blank space. Apart from the upcoming publication of “The Black Flower” and a few assorted day jobs, I’ve got a relatively easy four weeks ahead.

Now, if self-care rated higher on my list of priorities, I would have kept the slate clean and spent the whole of July playing the Crash Bandicoot reboot and binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

crash bandicoot
The new Crash Bandicoot reboot is totally gonna be N-Sane … when I actually get around to playing it.

But, much like nature, I abhor a vacuum.

So I decided to join a competition to finish my second novel by the end of July.

Camp NaNoWriMo is supposed to be the “light”, more fun version of NaNoWriMo, which I’ve taken part in (and blogged about) before. The cool part is that participants choose their own project and goal. There are virtual cabins where you can chat to other writers: I am the lone Aussie among 19 American writers, so at least that part of the camp experience is authentic. Of course, it’s -200 degrees here and there are no canoes, so it’s not quite a summer camp experience, but I will enjoy it nonetheless.

My project is a YA novel that originally began as a novella, which I completed the first draft of in February this year. With the working title of Damage Control (this will change, because I already have a few stronger titles in mind), it is by far the most vulnerable and personal work I have ever written. In some ways, it is difficult to write while drawing from that well of past pain. In other ways, it is a relief, like a toxin being extracted from my blood.

My goal was initially going to be 40,000 words in a month – a little less pressure than the traditional NaNoWriMo. But when I looked over my existing draft, I saw I already had about 20,000 words written – so, if I completed 50,000 in July, this would enable me to reach my target for the whole novel, which is 70,000.

So, 50,000 it is.

camp nanowrimo
Camp NaNoWriMo: Like summer camp, but 1000%  geekier.

After yesterday’s late-night effort (Day 5), I’m sitting at 12,599/50,000. It’s actually one of the strongest starts I’ve had on a NaNo project in a long time, maybe ever. I’m also really excited by this novel and, dare I say it, I’m even a little more eager to share this one with the world than I am with my first novel.

But as I plug away on my Camp NaNoWriMo project this month, I’ll be paying attention to something I don’t usually pay attention, at least not very consciously: self-care.

Filling my once spacious July schedule with blocks of writing time made me realise just how much of my own time I spend on writing. In and of itself, that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s pretty important when you’re trying to break through to become a professional writer that you put in a good amount of time.

But I suddenly realised how often I use my evenings and weekends for writing and writing admin.

Enthusiasm and (blind) ambition are two of my greatest qualities, and I consider them strengths. But it seems like I kind of suck at chilling out and having fun, which is kind of a sad thing to be bad at. Case in point: my copy of Crash Bandicoot is still in its plastic wrapping, unplayed, and I’ve had it for a week. I physically have not made time to have any fun. Gamer fail. Hell, human fail.

So while I’m going to push myself hard this month to achieve a goal that is incredibly important to me – the completion of my second novel – I am also going to be conscious about not burning out.

I’m going to make time to play video games.

aku aku
In the sage advice of Aku Aku: OOGA BOOGA!

I’m going to make time to watch something on TV.

I’m going to make time to go outside.

I’m going to set aside time to do absolutely nothing.

This sounds a bit common sense, but with my perfectionist tendencies, it isn’t easy to find a balance. It’s either all (multiple jobs and projects with deadlines) or nothing (burnout). To find a middlepath is a new challenge for me, and it’s one I’m looking forward to – albeit with some trepidation.

Here’s to a hybrid month: of productive, emotive, fulfilling novel writing, and an orange bandicoot smashing wooden crates, collecting Wumpa fruits and dealing with Aku Aku’s ambiguous sound effects.

Holden