How Losing My Job Saved My Career

It’s funny how a random memory can make you realise how much your life has changed.

An old photo popped up on my Facebook news feed this week. The photo was of me, two years ago, when I grew my hair long. At the time, I thought it made me look like Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who, as we all know, is not just a total rock god but a man of extraordinary hair. Hence, Grohl became not just my rock idol but my hair idol.

For the sake of full disclosure, the wookie in the below image was me in early September 2016.

holden long hair 2016
Yep, that’s my hair.

When this popped up the other day, I shared the image again on social media, because I thought it was funny. At the time, I thought draping my hair over my face, putting on my sunnies and pretending I was some kind of living hairball was the height of visual humour. I can confirm that two years later, nothing has changed: I am obviously still fucking hilarious. ^_^

When I shared this on social media, I said something vague like “this was me two years ago – never be afraid to change”. In hindsight, I thought this probably read like a dumb comment, because it’s pretty damn easy to change your haircut, and I don’t know many grown adults who are afraid of their barber.

But what I was thinking of when I said that was less the haircut and more what the haircut represented.

Because when I saw this picture, my first thought – after laughing at my own comic genius, of course – wasn’t how I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt.

My first thought was: I remember what it was like being you.

I suddenly remembered how the 2016 model Holden felt, day-in, day-out, and it was not happy.

DAVE GROHL
My hair idol, Dave Grohl.

In September 2016, I was struggling with the later drafts of my first novel, and I think on some level I knew it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. This made me depressed because I wanted to be a great writer with a great novel and the novel I was working on at the time only felt “good”.

At the same time, I was working in a day job where I was being treated like crap by my boss – the passive-aggressive kind of shit that absolutely nobody needs in their life. I was struggling to stay sober. To cope with everything, I was smoking a lot (my car was practically an ashtray on wheels) and I shovelled the absolute worst shit into my body: a constant stream of Maccas and pizza and KFC and chocolate and cool drink and sugar. Not only did this hideous nutrition make me feel constantly gross, I was also obese, and you couldn’t force me to set foot in a gym.

When I waddled into the house each night after work wanting to burst into (very masculine) tears, I would think my sore feet and my endless burning acid reflux and my depressed state were just part of getting older. “I guess this is what it’s like to get to 28,” I remember thinking.

It saddens me that I thought obesity and depression were part of becoming an adult.

The truth is, part of me felt resigned to an impending adulthood that would tear my dream of being a writer out of my grasp.

Although I had decided, in 2014, to pursue writing, I still had a very old map of my future lodged in the haywire circuitry of my brain. Full-time work still came first, and writing was wedged around the sides. I still wanted to climb the corporate ladder – not that my ladder was particularly corporate, working at a university – but I desired to work my way up higher, be promoted, be more senior, be paid more, be more recognised. I thought that once I hit 30, that would be the time to build a house in the far northern suburbs, get a mortgage, start a family.

So, when I see this hairy photo, I see that slightly younger version of myself. A man who was struggling, and depressed, and had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

A few days after this photo was taken, everything changed.

There was a restructure at work, and I lost my job.

The day I lost my job, I felt like any guy who loses his job. I felt like a failure; I wondered whether any of it was personal; I wondered why I hadn’t been good enough to keep. I felt like someone had flung a medicine ball into my solar plexus.

But the next day, I didn’t wake up dreading going to work, because I knew it was no longer going to be my life. I woke up realising my life was going to change, and suddenly, change didn’t seem like a bad thing.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more losing my job made me see my life more clearly than I ever had.

Because when it came to thinking about finding a new job – I realised I didn’t want to.

The more I reflected, the more I discovered I was supremely uninterested in working full time. I had learned the hard way that it didn’t make me happy, and that the chase for more money and more status was completely pointless and empty. Moreover, the chase itself wasn’t one I enjoyed. I was doing it because I thought I was meant to do it, not because I wanted to.

Same with the house and the mortgage and the family.

So when I thought about what I wanted, I came up with only one career goal: being a writer.

best news ever
Losing my job actually ended up being the best thing to happen to my career.

I decided in that moment that I would stop fucking around and relegating “writing” to the back seat. It was time to take myself seriously. Screw everyone’s opinions of what I should have been doing in my late twenties. Screw my own childhood impressions of success. I was going to be a writer, no matter what, and I would dedicate the rest of my life to the pursuit of that dream.

That was when my whole life changed.

I made the decision to never work full-time again, and to pick up part-time and casual work to support my lifestyle as an author. Fuck it, I thought. I can stand being a bit povo, but I can’t stand not having the time to be creative.

I decided I didn’t give a shit about owning a house just yet, and I still don’t.

And once I made these big changes, I felt incredibly happy. And inspired. And motivated.

So I started to do all the things that made me feel good. I joined a gym. I paid a personal trainer to help me get in shape. I worked out five times a week until I lost 30 kilos. I quit smoking. I cut the bad food in my diet and replaced it with nutritious shit that my body actually needs. I started writing more – not just my novel, but short stories and blog posts. I learned to express myself and my feelings authentically.

And yes, I cut my hair. I cut it super short, and bleached it, and for me this was a symbolic way of marking that I was going to live an alternative life to the one I thought was planned for me.

20161022_145241
October 2016: New hair, new attitude – and visiting the Centre for Stories for the first time.

None of this was easy. Most of it was harrowing, and terrifying, because I couldn’t actually be certain that my future as a writer would all work out the way I wanted it to. Hell, I still don’t know what lies ahead for my writing career. I still don’t have my first novel published, and even when I do get published (positive thinking) I have no guarantee that people will actually want to buy the book. Or that anyone will want to publish my next one. There’s no certainty at all.

I ultimately believe success as a writer is drawn from three components: talent, hard work and luck.

You can hone talent, and you can work hard, but you can’t control luck. So it is for every author or creative or frankly, any human. Any number of aspects of my career might not pan out. This whole writing caper could go completely tits up for all I know.

But what I’ve learned is that living a life in pursuit of a dream is a reward all of its own.

And the only way I stand to gain everything I want is to risk everything first. Whether my dreams are achieved or not is ultimately out of my control. What is within my control is whether I choose to follow my dreams – and when I follow them, my soul, mind and body are all in alignment with the universe and I feel awesome.

If I die pursuing a dream that never came to fruition, I will have lived a life of feeling perpetually hopeful and purposeful and awesome, and to me that is worth much more than living the constrained and resigned traditional life I once thought I ought to lead.

So when I look at this hairy motherfucker in the photo, I feel energised, because I realise how far I’ve come.

And I also want to place my hands on this bloke’s shoulders and tell him to be brave, because he’s about to learn that in order to find himself, he will have to throw away almost everything he knows about his old life.

And very soon, he’ll be stepping onto a treadmill, earbuds in, with Jewel’s “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland” playing in his ears as his legs begin to run and his heart begins to pump harder than it has in years.

Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
You can keep your yellow brick road
There is a difference between dreaming and pretending
These are not tears in my eyes
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
I found what’s missing in my life

Never be afraid to change your life.

Holden

How Do You Know If You’re Successful?

Are you successful?

How do you know?

I’ve had so many unexpected conversations lately around the concept of success, and it’s really got me thinking about how we as scrabbling, imperfect humans measure and quantify success.

The other day, someone close to me declared her ambition to one day own a new, silver Mercedes. As she had never previously indicated any interest in motor vehicles, let alone luxury ones, I was bemused and asked her why. It turned out she saw a new Mercedes as a sign of success.

My first instinct was to roll my eyes at this. Not because I’m sneering at a new Mercedes – Jesus, I should be so lucky to stand in the general vicinity of one’s exhaust fumes!

No – it’s because I’m from a blue-collar background and I was raised to eschew material possessions as signs of success. Whatever the other parts of my upbringing I have rejected, or evolved from, this isn’t one of them. So, my reflex was to judge this person.

Mercedes_AMG-GT_Silver_carousel_1017-1152x648
Sure, it’s shiny, but if it’s not a Commodore, I’m not impressed. ^_^

Later on, I started to think about why she would have such a materialistic desire. This person has spent much of her life struggling as a carer and a single parent, and she has worked doggedly to get a degree as a mature age student, and has now just finished her Master’s degree and landed a full-time role in her field. A flash new Mercedes has been completely out of her reach for most of her life, and it still is. So, the Merc stands as a symbol of a not-yet-attained success. It is a beacon and a dream, but moreover, it is a measurement: the day I can afford a new silver Mercedes is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.

Just a couple of days later, I was having a coffee with a colleague and, completely unprompted, she mentioned something unexpectedly similar about how she would know when she’d reached the level of success she wanted. But her measurement wasn’t a car.

Shoes, she said. Shoes or a handbag. (And she was not the kind of woman I would have expected to say something as stereotypically female as this, either.)

“I want to walk into a meeting with my Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag,” she said firmly. “Even if nobody else knows those labels, I’ll know, and that’s what matters.”

Again, this was something I had to ponder on. For so long, I haven’t thought of success in those kind of material terms, so I was trying to get my head around it. But it was the same principle as the Mercedes: the day I can afford Jimmy Choos is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.

adidas jeremy scott
I don’t care much for shoes, but these go okay. I don’t know if I’d call them a status symbol, though.

So, naturally, because I’m a self-absorbed, navel-gazing author, I started thinking about what this meant for me.

What is my measurement? How will I know when I have achieved the success I desire?

Considering how navel-gazey I can be, I was surprised to find that I actually didn’t have an answer.

The more writers I speak to, the more I believe that success as an author is largely based on illusion. That is, when we regard a big shot bestseller or a distinguished award-winner, we are perceiving what we would consider a successful author. We say to ourselves, that guy has sold a million copies and had his books sold in other countries, adapted into films – he is successful. Or we tell ourselves that she’s so esteemed, the critics’ darling, and wins every award under the sun – she is successful.

But do those authors themselves feel successful?

What is their measurement?

Every time something good happens in my career, like the recent news that my novella had won a competition and is getting published, I feel an initial injection of elation. After a barrage of rejection, it’s so incredibly euphoric when the occasional thing actually goes right.

But very quickly, I’m back to where I started. That was good, I tell myself, but now you need to do better. Onwards and upwards. What is the next step?

I’ve been looking at my career as a giant spiral staircase, and I’m on one of the lowest rungs, and I can see so many amazing people ahead of me: climbing higher, climbing faster, standing proudly at the top of the stairs.

But nothing I’ve ever done makes me feel like I’ve reached the top of the stairs. Or like I’ve even reached a landing where I can stop and catch my breath, and appraise just how many goddamn steps I’ve hauled my arse up so far.

spiral-staircase-photography-2
Don’t. Look. Down.

I tell myself this is because I still have such a long way to go – my first novel isn’t even published yet, after all – but I am starting to wonder whether publication would actually change this feeling.

And the more I speak to published authors, the more this seems common. People who have their first novel published don’t feel successful, even when they have won awards or sold a shit-ton of copies. Even authors with several books out don’t always feel like they’re at the top of the stairs, and nobody I know looks down at the staircase behind them and thinks they’ve come far enough.

My point here is that perhaps us writers and artists, more than other professions, don’t know how to quantify our success.

Part of this, I suspect, is because so much of our career trajectory rests on the caprices of fate, which is not exactly the steady kind of foundation you’d want to build a McMansion on and raise your 2.4 children.

Unlike many professions, pure hard work and talent don’t cleanly translate to monetary success. We are aware that despite all our blood, sweat and eyewater, it’s possible that the dreams we have may never see fruition in the way we want them, and that is pure agony.

The way I cope with this is to believe in a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, in which he states:

“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.

I truly believe this.

But believing this has also inoculated me against thinking about what will happen if I do find the success I desire (hell, I’ll be honest: I crave it). It’s a function of self-protection to avoid thinking about success, but the net effect of this approach is that when things do go well, I actually don’t pat myself on the back at all. I allow others to congratulate me and I am truly touched by their warmth and generosity, and I retweet their kind words, but on the inside I’m just like, but I’m not a published novelist yet.

And if I keep going the way I’m going, I’ll never recognise success if I’m lucky enough to experience it. I might get published, and sell a lot, and win awards, but I’ll be endlessly stuck in this mire of self-flagellation if I don’t know what success looks like for me.

So, if life goes well, and the stars and planets align, and I get what I want, how will I know? What will be my measure of success?

I had to really think about this, because I didn’t have an immediate status symbol, like a brand of luxury car or fashion gear.

And don’t get me wrong, I am in no way a zen Buddhist dude who has rejected the material needs of human beings. I like shiny shit as much as the next gormless idiot.

I’ve always wanted a flash Maloo ute, for instance … yellow or black – or an SSV ute in atomic green, but they don’t make those anymore and I think by the time I can afford one, they’ll no longer be as fucking awesome as they were in like 2008.

I’ve always wanted to have enough money to fix up my classic 1968 Mini.

I’d love a bigger house, with a dedicated office for writing, or maybe even an actual den.

I’m sure I’d love some cool shit around the house, like how Matthew Reilly has all his sick memorabilia (I believe he owns a DeLorean), but there’s nothing I am that obsessed with that would make physical stuff any more than house decoration. Same with clothes and watches and any other accessories.

But I really struggle to equate any of these things to success. None of them stands out as the one thing that would define my moment of attaining the success I desire. And I could kind of live happily without any of these ever coming to fruition, as nice as some of them would be.

hsv_maloo_eseries_ser1_01
I’ll take one in each colour. Plus the dirt bikes. Though I am likely to fall off them …

It took awhile, but I eventually found my measurement. The one thing I want to achieve in life; the one thing that, when I achieve it, I will know I am successful.

It turns out that thing is unemployment.

I want to one day be able to quit my day job, knowing that I am making a living income off my writing. That I will be able to sustain myself for the rest of my life as a writer and a speaker.

That’s actually the thing that makes me most excited of all – more than a souped-up ute, or a plush wood-panelled den, or some kind of outsized Pokemon memorabilia.

I imagine the day I can tell my (kind, supportive, amazing) bosses that my writing has become my primary source of income, and I can no longer work a day job.

That will be success for me: no longer having a job; feeling the freedom and excitement of being a full-time writer.

This gives me something concrete to aim for. Sure, it’s fucking distant, hard as hell, and will probably take me at least a decade from now to achieve, if I’m lucky, but it’s a measurement, and a goal, and a dream.

And when, not if, it finally happens (positive thinking, people), I promise to myself that I will give myself a proper rest. I will stop, and look down at the years of climbing that spiral staircase, and feel the burn in my quads and my glutes, and wipe the sweat off my forehead. I’ll acknowledge how much hard work it took to get there, and fucking congratulate myself on getting what I wanted.

And hell, maybe I’ll take my partner for a little holiday to Positano in the south of Italy to celebrate, too. (Or I’ll buy a Chev-badged Maloo ute – they’ll be dirt cheap by then!)

Until then, there’s a load of hard work ahead. But at least I know where I’m heading, and when I’ll decree myself a “successful” writer.

And there are loads of smaller milestones along the way to that dream. I’m going to make a conscious effort to be truly grateful for any of them I am lucky enough to actually achieve, and to stop on each of those landings on the way up the staircase to catch my breath.

Big breath in – it’s time to climb.

Holden

PS. I am super fascinated by how other people – writers and non-writers – measure their success. Let me know in the comments here or on FB/Twitter what your measurement of success is. I promise not to judge you if it’s a Maserati or a Lamborghini – and in return, you can let me take it for a spin one day, yes?

positano
The dream: on the terrace of one of these villas in Positano, celebrating with my partner that I have become a full-time writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What It Feels Like to Finish a Novel

The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.

I was eleven, and as far as I was concerned, the handwritten story that filled a whopping 64 pages of my blue-lined exercise book was an actual novel. Looking back, it would have been about 12,000 words or so: around the length of the Honours thesis I would go on to write 13 years later, and just a little longer than THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR.

My “book” was a sci-fi story called CAPRION’S WARNING. The main character, Nick, was a twelve-year-old Italian boy with seventeen immediate family members. I may have been projecting a little of myself, plus identifying with and/or being enamoured by Nick Kontellis from Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc books. Nick’s friend Luigi (Mario Kart was big at the time) got kidnapped by some aliens after a school disco (which figured prominently in my life at the time) and so Nick and his friends had to get in a spaceship and rescue Luigi. The whole story was essentially a global warming parable from the aliens; it was fun, but it made absolutely no logical sense.

I was quietly chuffed with myself when I finished that story. Looking back, I don’t

Caprion's Warning
Caprion’s Warning: In 1999, I wrote about 2017 as if it were a futuristic sci-fi setting. Was I a prophet about how bad that year would be? Hope not.

remember telling a soul. When it came to my creative side, I was incredibly withdrawn and secretive. My family never read a word of my work, nor my friends. In fact, the one time two of my mates tried to open an exercise book I’d accidentally left on my desk, I went into primal neanderthal mode and screamed at them to give it back. It culminated in a wrestling match in which the book was torn in half; thankfully, my desperation (and, I’m sure, their perplexed terror) enabled me to win that one – they never read it. (Incidentally, they are still good mates, they are possibly reading this, and they totally know who they are.)

In hindsight, finishing that story was kind of a non-event. I just turned the page and started the next little nonsensical pre-teen story – one that would never be completed.

I wrote constantly in the intervening years, but the next time I completely finished a project was 2011. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to name this project at the moment, but it occupied my mind and heart for a longer time than any other project to date has. This story was a piece of Pokemon fanfiction I posted on an online forum, and it had quite a large readership, especially in the first few years, though I retained a smaller group of dedicated readers until the end. I wrote the first chapter of this in late 2001, when I was thirteen, and completed the entire series of four novels in late 2011, aged twenty-three.

Actually completing that fanfic was one of the most difficult and gargantuan tasks I’ve ever undertaken – and I was once coerced into waiting eight hours in line for a Delta Goodrem concert in the middle of summer.

The feeling when I completed that series of four novels? Devastation. I fell apart and sobbed like you wouldn’t believe. Everything conflated at once: the joy of finishing such a long-term endeavour; the satisfaction of persevering for so long; the sorrow of saying goodbye to all those characters, whom I loved, especially the core cast; and the utter devastation at the end of my youth.

LTL C90
As I grew up, my writing started to get very ~teenage~.

Because, of course, that whole project enveloped my formative years. Inhabiting that world was something I did daily, whether at the laptop or not, for an entire decade, and I grew so much during that time. At the start, I was a pimply thirteen-year-old dealing with puppy fat and wet dreams and dial-up Internet (and I couldn’t say which was the most awkward to deal with). By the end, I was in my early twenties, doing an Honours degree and working for a university and a bank simultaneously. The story had evolved, too, from being a juvenile “trainer fic” to an exciting action-adventure with a decent level of maturity. Even writing this now inspires me all over again.

I said once in an interview on that forum that I was treating that story like a training ground for my “real” writing. It was an astute observation: I knew that story could never get published given the trademark/licensing issues around fanfiction, so I just enjoyed it as a project of love and used the practice (and the feedback from some excellent readers) to hone my skills.

After that project was done, I was ready for the real deal.

In February 2015, after ten months of planning and three months of writing, I completed my first full-length novel of original work (YA Fantasy). I didn’t cry, which in hindsight tells me a lot. From memory, I moodily crept onto the patio, played Desperado by The Eagles on low volume from my phone, and smoked a cigarette or three while watching the sun rise (it was about 5am and I’d pulled an all-nighter). I did feel the achievement of finally completing my first novel: it was very gratifying.

TIS excerpt
The only glimpse I’ve given so far of the first novel – to be edited and reworked.

But despite that smoky, nebulous state of triumph, I didn’t have a visceral response. The manuscript had a lot of structural problems, and I knew it. Beta reader feedback, a series of edits, a mentorship, and a copy edit all followed. When I completed draft number seven in late 2016, I was exhausted and sick of it, but my initial feedback from agents tells me it’s still not quite there.

And the reason I now know that for sure is that, one week ago, I completed my second novel.

And what a stark contrast it bears to the first one.

I started writing my second novel – let’s call it DAMAGE CONTROL, even though that’s just a placeholder title – in July this year. From the beginning, I had the overwhelming feeling that this book – a straight-up YA story – was the novel that would find publication first. Peter Parker would say his Spidey sense was tingling; Dennis Denuto would say he had a vibe; Kath Day-Knight would say she had a feeling in her waters. Everything just seemed to mesh together.

Call it what you will, but that feeling gripped me for two months and didn’t let go until I finished the final chapter last week. DAMAGE CONTROL is the most close-to-the-bone, intensely personal piece of fiction I have ever written. It felt like it poured out of me fully-formed; like twenty-nine years of pain were slowly and gingerly extracted from my blood. It was almost a channelling experience: when I reread some of the lines, I can’t even remember writing them.

As American sportswriter Red Smith famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

Red was right.

Once you open the vein and allow yourself to bleed, writing is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.

But it was something I had never done before.

CAPRION’S WARNING was more or less pure juvenile nonsense writing.

My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.

And my first novel was essentially people-pleasing in literary form: calculating my moves, crafting a product for an imagined readership, second-guessing what the readers and market and editors and agents might want. In short, everything except being authentic, and genuine, and unabashedly myself.

DAMAGE CONTROL is me without a single inhibition. I’ve hidden nothing. Every fear, every fragility, every insecurity, every obnoxious word and thought is on display here for the world. It is a fictional work, entirely, but the characters embody the best and, frequently, the worst parts of me as the author: the things I am ashamed of; the things I’ve been hurt by.

second novel
Proudly holding my second completed novel.

My blood is on every page.

And it makes all the difference – because it actually works.

My first beta reader was completely blown away. He cried twice during the novel, especially towards the end.

“This is the best thing you have ever written,” he declared at the end, without hesitation. “This is very brave …”

As for how I felt when I finished it?

First was the sorrow: I cried, like a little kid who fell off his bike.

Then came the euphoria: I went to the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, adrenaline crushed into my bloodstream and music pounding in my ears.

And finally, satisfaction: I went out for ice cream with my fiance.

The most exciting outcome of finishing this novel was that it enabled me to understand, and define, myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before. And my hope is that, in my being honest and vulnerable and brave, my readers will be able to make the same discoveries about themselves.

Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.

I cannot wait to share it with you each.

Holden