How Alanis Morissette Saved My Life

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.”

“Huh.”

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.

Holden

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The Importance of STOPPING (Before You Crash)

So, I finally stopped.

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!

Holden 🙂