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 🙂

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2017 Is Done, And I’m Still Breathing

I always find it hard to sum up a year when I’m still living it.

Every 31st December, the prevailing sentiment for most people is that we are weary battlers who made it through another year of global spite and personal chaos. So often, we are quick to deliver the departing year a few quick bludgeons on the back of the head as it crosses the threshold from felt experience into history. I know I’ve shared more than one meme about the years lining up to beat the living shit out of me.

Sometimes it really feels that way, doesn’t it? We barely escape a calendar year with our sanity and hope intact, only to get clobbered by the next January.

This is just life, of course. With each passing year, I’ve come to realise that it’s the nature of every year that there are some significant highs and often some crushing lows. Even when I’ve had a terrible year – like perhaps 2010 and 2013 (not incidentally, years where I worked full-time in day jobs and didn’t write a word) – there were some really amazing things that I enjoyed about those years. Likewise, happier years like perhaps 2008 (when I hit my stride at uni) and 2011 (when I started my Hons degree and finished an important story) had their share of bullshit and pain, too.

fork in the road 2017a
As usual at this time of year, I find myself at a literal fork in the road.

2017 is no different. The year started horrendously: I had just been made redundant at my old full-time job, and the novel I had spent two and a half years working on garnered no interest from literary agents. At first, I fell into an abyss and gave myself permission to stay there for a little while.

But I always prefer to push on, and not wallow. So I decided to see losing my job and my first novel’s failure to get any interest from agents as a chance for a new beginning. I was determined to find a new job that I really loved. I would push on and work harder to get published. And dammit, I would try to change my unhealthy habits along the way, too.

If I could encapsulate this year in one image and one moment, it would be me sprinting and sweating on a treadmill at sunset while “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga throbbed in my eardrums. Man, that song was a driving force behind me all year long.

2017 for me was a year of intensely hard work; and a year where I learned intensely hard work does not just apply to paid jobs or manual labour. I worked hard and sacrificed – day and night, weekdays and weekends – until I got bits and pieces of what I wanted.

In the work domain, I eventually landed a bunch of casual jobs that just barely allowed me to make ends meet. It was uniquely stressful trying to cram so many roles into my week’s calendar, but I did it. Often it was not enough money to pay for everything, so it was a damn tough year financially and I had to sacrifice and struggle, but I refused to give in and go back to full time work. That part of my life is now over. I am a writer, first and foremost, now, and I will take on only part-time and casual work to get me through.

In the writing sphere, I had the best year of my life, hands down. I released three of my short-stories as e-Books, and got to see one of them chart on iBooks in the US which was incredible. I became the Vice-President of my local writing centre. I wrote a significant and highly personal article on same-sex marriage for the Huffington Post which went viral and briefly tapped into the national conversation. I was interviewed a few times on commercial, community and AM radio.

And best of all, I wrote my second novel. This novel was birthed as a novella in February, and came screaming and kicking out of me in July and August. INVISIBLE BOYS was completed this year, and went on to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award. It also caught the interest of literary agent extraordinaire Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency, who I gleefully signed to in November.

I also kept working on my fitness this year: I lost another 20 kilos (bringing the grand total to 30 kg lost since 2016) but most importantly, I kept and maintained a dedicated fitness and diet regime, which continues into 2018. I also finally quit smoking (again) but this time it seems to have stuck: as of five hours from now, 2017 will be my first whole year without a cigarette since 2009, and I am very thrilled about this.

Often these kinds of “year-in-review” posts can be seen to be in bad taste. I see people on Facebook often mocked for showing off their achievements, or cherry-picking only the good stuff. I guess I see the humour in that (the Bell Tower Times had a hilarious post about this just today) but I also see the value in reflective thinking and summarising one’s experience in a way that starts to build a narrative for oneself.

And no, 2017 was not uniquely a good year. In fact, in a whole load of private ways, this year was one of the most painful and difficult of my entire life. I don’t dwell on these matters, or even identify all of them, because I don’t want to and it’s too painful. But I suppose I want to acknowledge that they’re there.

The only one I will cast some light on is that writing a novel like INVISIBLE BOYS was a total headfuck and required me to mine the depths of some very old trauma and pain, and this had an enormous effect on me. In fact, when I lived some of the experience that contributes to this fictional book, it nearly killed me. And when I first tried to write about it in 2012, it nearly killed me a second time. In 2017, I managed to revisit it and write about it with honesty and transparency and no sacred cows, and I am still breathing.

In fact, that’s my proudest achievement of 2017: that even after tackling my demons, I’m still breathing.

2018 promises to be an even more arduous year of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and courage (and probably spear-tackling some demons again, just for good measure), so I’m excited to dive in and keep breathing through next year, too.

Congratulations to all of you for surviving 2017, and I can’t wait to travel more of this road with you next year. Happy new year! 🙂

Holden

Best Part of the Job!

In the excitement of the past few weeks, I somehow never mentioned some other news here: I recently became the Vice President of the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre!

I have always been keen on volunteering my time where I can, and over the years I’ve found myself giving my time in a volunteer capacity for a few organisations: a local art and project space; a multicultural radio station (where I co-hosted a radio show in French); and a university magazine (writing and copy-editing).

Typically, though, I couldn’t sustain any of these through the other demands on my time; the most longstanding was the radio show, which my co-host and I broadcast for about a year.

Back in April, I was invited to become a committee member of the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre. I’d done some work with the centre in my capacity working in community engagement for Edith Cowan University: I’d used some of my project money to fund workshop places for teenagers from low SES background, many of whom would not usually have the luxury of attending regular writing workshops to help nourish their creativity.

I’d sat on a few event or project committees before, but never on a management committee, so this was a new experience for me. I wasn’t sure if I’d have enough to contribute, but over time I grew more comfortable and realised that yes, I did, in fact, have something to give.

And a writers’ centre is a perfect fit for a writer to volunteer at! I get to give back to the profession I love; I get to help and support and nurture other writers; and I get to be a part of the local writing sector.

After some time on the committee, I was asked to be Grants Officer, and then shortly after I was asked to take on the Vice Presidency.

As far as writers’ centres go, the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre is a really nice one to be a part of. Our centre sits in on the beautiful grounds of Edith Cowan University’s Joondalup campus, surrounded by gardens, pines, native bushland and a beautiful lake with a fountain in it; you can hear water gushing and birds chirping from our offices. Ducks waddle past on the regular, though it’s best not to get too close, as they have a tendency for diving at your head if you are perceived to get too close to their ducklings.

Holden at PCWC November 2017
Holden outside the PCWC, Nov 2017

Moreover, the job of VP is really nice. In the past week alone, I had the chance to visit the University of Western Australia at a networking event and the launch of their new online issue, Flux. I had the opportunity to chat with young writers and students about what our centre does – workshops, mentorship and guidance, competitions, writing groups – and got to hear about their hopes and dreams, too.

But my favourite event in the past week was the prize-giving ceremony for the 2017 Glen Phillips Poetry Prize, held in our grounds on a warm Saturday. I was the Master of Ceremonies for the small event, and it was really, really fun to be able to congratulate some local poets, like Scott-Patrick Mitchell, Shey Marque and Yanika O’Brien on their award-winning poems. There were some interstate poets in attendance, too: the talented Anne Casey flew over from Sydney to receive her award for her poem ‘Category Four’.

GPPP 2017 Winners
2017 GPPP Winners on the Day, with the competition judge Dr Vivienne Glance

It was great fun to be able to offer a moment of joy to some fellow writers, and to give them the opportunity to read and perform their poetry in front of an audience. And perform they did! All were remarkable; our first prize winner, Scott-Patrick Mitchell, was an absolute standout.

That day was, at this stage at least, the best part of the job!

I can’t extol the value of local writers’ centres enough. If you’re a writer at any stage of your career – aspiring, emerging, published and/or uber-famous – there is something for you to gain from getting involved in yours. Do an online search, find your local centre and drop in and say g’day! Writing is often a solitary and misunderstood profession – so get involved, even if you’re naturally an introvert, and you will be surprised at the opportunities for growth, and other connections, that crop up.

Holden

 

 

 

Success is an Iceberg

It was to my absolute surprise a couple of weeks ago that my debut YA novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, was announced as the winner of the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award.

This award recognises the outstanding manuscript of a young Australian writer (under the age of 30). It is run by the Australian Society of Authors, provides the winner with a one-week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, and was judged by some fantastic and well-known published authors (Aoife Clifford and Tristan Bancks).

In short: it was a significant win, and definitely the most significant win of my writing career thus far.

It also caught the attention of a wonderful literary agent in Sydney, whom I have now signed with: again, a massive win in my career as an author.

The truth is, though, I never expected to win this award, and I was utterly shocked (and elated) when I did.

I apply for as much as I can, partly because I believe in seizing as many opportunities as possible, and partly on the advice New York agent Janet Reid always gives on her blog, which is, in a nutshell, “Write well, and query widely.”

I pretty much operate by that mantra. I write as well as I can. I seek constant feedback. I am always trying to improve, to write more economically, to write from the heart about what hurts, to avoid the cliche.

And I query as widely as I can. Not just in my submissions to agents and publishers, but when I send short stories to journals, and in my applications for residencies, mentorships, writing programs of all shapes and sizes – you name it.

Mind you, I don’t just hurl applications into the stratosphere and hope something sticks. I only apply for stuff where I fit the criteria, and stuff that I really want.

When I first got the email about my award win, I was confused, because I’d just applied for something completely different a few days ago, and I wondered how they could possibly have turned that around in such a short space of time.

Then the penny dropped.

Fuck, I lost my shit, man.

I won’t go into too much detail, but there was some jumping, some shouting, and some very loud music. I spun around my home office like a dervish whirling, though I don’t know any dervishes who like whirling to “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga.

This was all the more sweet because, to be frank, 2017 has been a hard bloody slog.

I worked hard all year building my career as an indie author. I released three short stories, two of which sold decently and one which sold surprisingly well. I tweeted and Facebooked and blogged. I managed my own website, my own promotion. I poured what little money I have into my writing career instead of saving it. So many days, I would knock off from a day at working one of my five jobs (sometimes doing several of them in a single day), and then, before I could sit down and write my novel, I’d have to drag my arse to my trainer at the gym, who would pummel me for an hour – mentally and physically. And only then would I get home, shower, eat, and get stuck into a few more pages.

I burned out several times. When I wasn’t burnt out, I was either a pre-burnout neurotic mess or a post-burnout shell. I had to fit in doctor’s visits and counselling sessions into what was already a ridiculous schedule.

And during all of those godawful days, I never once thought of giving up.

Not once did I wonder if I would ever get anywhere with my writing.

At every stage, I just wondered, “How long will it take?”

Because I’m so deadset on my career as an author, nothing will stop me. If everything else fails and I lose everything, I’ll be that crazy homeless guy in the park and I’ll just read my novels aloud to the people walking by on their lunch break trying to avoid my gaze.

Of course, I hope it won’t come to that. The signs are really good. But I’m half Sicilian, and Sicilians can be a little cautious and a little superstitious.

There is some overused meme out there in the cyber-ether that says success is an iceberg. It is very, very true. I’m surprised at how many people recently have suggested, after congratulating me on the award win or landing my agent, that everything’s always rosy for me.

I probably should just let those comments slide – especially as they are usually well-intentioned – but, perhaps because I’m a writer, I want the picture painted by passing words to be accurate. Not just for myself, but for other writers to know that it’s the same for all of us. That’s why I’m at pains to point out that the overnight successes are never overnight, nor are they pure success.

In fact, in 2017 I think I faced more rejection than ever.

My first manuscript (not INVISIBLE BOYS, but a fantasy novel) was rejected by everyone who laid eyes on it.

And my other works were knocked back by journals, magazines, newspapers, websites, writing centres and publishers.

Over and over.

I don’t announce every rejection. Firstly because they hurt; secondly because I don’t want to be a downer.

But they happen all the time. They happen to every writer, aspiring, emerging and yes, even published authors get rejected.

This hasn’t been an easy year, so having a win at the end becomes an even bigger celebration for me.

I am so, so grateful that Ray Koppe’s legacy has enabled young writers like myself to have this opportunity. And I’m thrilled that the Australian Society of Authors keeps this program going.

The moment in the sun has reached its twilight now. I have deadlines now, and I need to make some edits to my manuscript, so it’s back to hard work mode.

But, man, after everything – the hard work, the failure, the sacrifice – it was really nice to have a bloody win this year.

More from me, soon.

Holden

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Bitch to Grow Up

Far out, man.

I’d be hard pressed to pick a period of time in which I’ve been more hectic than I have been the past few weeks.

In fact, when I sat down at my desk today, I glanced at the papers strewn across it, including a very dated and half-completed to-do list, and realised I had not touched my laptop or sat down in my nice cushy IKEA chair for an entire two weeks!

It’s been that long since I threw together a blog post, too, which is hideous as I try hard to get the weekly blog posts happening with regularity.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know a bit about what’s been keeping me flat out in the writing space: a couple of really big wins that I will dedicate my next blog post to. I’d talk about them now, but it’s already 11pm and I’m knackered.

The other weight on me has been work. Like a lot of authors, I juggle a whole bunch of part-time and casual roles (and, foolishly, some voluntary ones, too). Usually this is manageable, but lately all of them have demanded my time at once, and I’ve found myself feeling like I’m desperate for air but stuck underwater. I am totally overwhelmed and the situation I’ve put myself in is quite clearly no longer manageable.

I blogged in July about this same sense of burnout, and it is becoming really clear to me that I still haven’t learned my lesson.

There is a latter-day Alanis Morissette song (circa 2008) called “It’s a Bitch To Grow Up”, and some of the lyrics are hitting home right now.

Namely the verse:

I’ve repeated this dance ad nauseum
There’s still something to learn that I’ve not

This is really so true. I have burnt out a few times now. As in, ending up in hospital kind of burn out. And like a magpie attacking its reflection in a flying rage, I somehow keep repeating the same mistake ad nauseum.

I’m an ambitious person by nature, so I like to take on more and more stuff, but I really have to come to grips with the fact that I can’t do everything at once. It’s just not possible, especially when I have five different paid jobs, a couple of voluntary positions and a writing career. It’s lunacy.

And as I’ve already established through my musings on this blog and elsewhere, writing is the thing that matters most to me.

So I think it’s time I learn that I can’t do a million things at once without making myself sick. I need to stop. I need to slow down. I need to recalibrate and work out how to run my life effectively in a way that allows me to prioritise my writing career without letting the day jobs and other commitments choke all the air out of the room.

I really just need to learn how to take care of myself, don’t I?

As Alanis said:

I feel done, I feel raked over coals
and all that remains is the case
That it’s a bitch to grow up

Holden

 

 

I have literally never tried less at anything in my life …

So, I have never put in as little effort into anything in my life as I did this year’sbogan batman Halloween costume. Seriously.

I call it Bogan Batman: I’ll solve Gotham’s crime problems, but only once I’m done with me beer.

Happy Halloween!

Holden

The Parting of the Ways

Whenever I speak to someone about something I’ve written, I am always at pains to point out that it is fiction and therefore totally made up.

Sometimes – like with works of epic fantasy – it’s easier for people to swallow: I don’t usually need to break a sweat trying to convince someone I am not a warrior mage from Dervine, for instance.

But when you write contemporary YA – which is the genre/category of my upcoming novel – the line between the characters of fiction and the author who brought them into being becomes blurry.

All novels are, by their nature and definition, works of fiction – but there’s no denying that they also serve to crystallise many fragments of the author. It may be elements of our psyche, our history, our politics or our worldview, but some hidden shards of us end up in the final product, like tiny cracked eggshells accidentally sprinkled into the pudding.

The degree to which this happens varies from author to author, novel to novel.

I’ve recently been poring over my printed manuscript, going over some notes from the editor and immersing myself in the novel’s aura, and today a quote came to me from the abyss.

Okay, it was from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but “abyss” had more gravitas.

Towards the end of that book [SPOILER ALERT, if you’re 17 years behind …], in the penultimate chapter titled “The Parting of the Ways”, Harry is forced to recount the trauma of what just happened to him at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. He’s witnessed Cedric being murdered in front of him; witnessed the spectral reincarnation of his dead parents for a cruel, infinitesimal moment; and seen the Dark Lord rise again.

In short, he’s had a bloody shit night out and the thought of talking about it is too painful.

When I first read this novel at age twelve, there was a line from this chapter that stood out to me. In subsequent years, as I’ve attempted to recover from some of the trauma I’ve put myself through in life, that line has glowed in my mind with the ferocity of a lightning bolt-shaped scar:

“Once or twice, Sirius made a noise as though about to say something, his hand still tight on Harry’s shoulder, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him, and Harry was glad of this, because it was easier to keep going now he had started. It was even a relief; he felt almost as though something poisonous was being extracted from him; it was costing him every bit of determination he had to keep talking, yet he sensed that once he had finished, he would feel better.”

The part in bold is what resonates with me, now, as I look at the mess of papers that constitutes my manuscript’s current draft.

I had the same feeling when I started writing this book: that something toxic was being extracted from my blood; with each sentence I pounded out on the keyboard, a few more drops of latent venom leaked out of my veins, slowing filling the vial.

Acidic pain.

Boiling rage.

Noxious regret.

Caustic shame.

It finally escaped my body and became contained in its own vessel: the manuscript that sits before me now, marked in editor’s pencil and illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.

Yes, it’s entirely fictional. The characters are made up, and so is the story. It will be read, first and foremost, as a tale. But the themes this novel tackles are so close to the bone that I drew plenty on my own past in fleshing out some elements.

My writing process for this novel reflects Harry’s experience and exhaustion, too. I had to plumb some deep reserves of determination to keep writing when I was so shattered, but I knew that once I finished, I would feel better.

I do feel better now.

Moreover, writing this book represented a Parting of the Ways of my own. That vial full of poisonous venom has left my body and is contained in the manuscript now. Now that it’s outside of me at last, I can see it more clearly. I can experiment with it. I can open it and close it. I can hold it in my hands and feel its weight.

My task now is to make some final touches and then send it into the world, where my work can, I hope, serve as balm for others whose skin right now is as burnt and raw as mine once was.

Holden