The first time it happened was two weeks into my book tour.
At the end of my author talk at a library in Perth, a well-intentioned (and very nice) audience member asked a question that got under my skin.
She asked how I felt about becoming a role model.
I was immediately horrified by this question, and I told her so. I explained that being held up as a paragon of anything was anathema to me, and I wasn’t interested in that kind of public role.
But, she insisted, my example would be of interest to gay people, to young men, to people in general. She had just heard me talk about sexuality and shame, masculinity and identity, mental health and self-care. She thought these were important conversations.
I agreed. These themes are central to my book and my work. But I didn’t want to be seen as exclusively positive and wholesome. That terrified me.
The promo cycle for the book rolled on, and the “role model” question came up again and again – and continues to.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a super nice thing to have said to you. And I learned to be more courteous in my response. I didn’t want to come across as a completely ungrateful prick. After all, not long ago a man like me would have been derided, scorned, barred from events at schools; go far back enough and I would’ve been locked up.
So, “role model” is hardly a slur. It just made me intensely uncomfortable.
Once I looked up the meaning of the term – a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy – I thought, okay, that’s not so bad. If a closeted teenage boy could look at me and see there are many different ways of being homosexual, and that gave him something tangible to shape himself in accordance with, okay, fine. If that helps someone, fine.
But the terror has never gone away, because most people don’t just want a ‘role model’.
They want a good role model.
That’s the term that makes me want to run away.
A ‘good’ person behaves well and conforms to the norms and customs of society, and, to be frank, the norms and customs of western culture in 2021 are fucking horrible.
Being a good artist, or a good gay man, in this era, carries particular behavioural expectations. I have learned this from interactions over the past few years, and even in just the past week. I am expected to speak and behave in a certain way; effuse a certain toxic positivity and purity; project my morality and politics publicly; call out and be outraged by any fellow artist or gay deemed even slightly problematic, while never being deemed problematic myself. I am tacitly expected to become an activist by default – not just in my art either, but in a vitriolic, showy way on social media.
My sense is that in 2021, to be in the public eye, to be a minority in the public eye no less, is to be held to an excessively high standard of performative virtuous behaviour, bordering on squeaky-clean, lemony-fresh perfection.
This is sick.
That pressure to be “good” for the public is deeply unhealthy. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is even that crash hot. It’s human nature to be kind of nice but also sometimes a piece of shit. To pretend otherwise feels so disingenuous. We are all made of dark and light, shadow and persona.
This is particularly true of artists. We are often damaged people. We have a tendency to be mentally ill, addicted, traumatized, sensitive, troubled. I am all of these things. Most artists and writers I know are, too, to varying degrees. This side of our selves often informs much of our art, and explains why we can be navel-gazing and temperamental at the best of times.
And the thing is, this drive for perfect behaviour sets me off because I’ve been there. I am proof of why it’s a terrible idea to pretend you are pure; when you let the persona take over and try to perform virtue for the world, in order to obtain safety, love, popularity, relevance, group acceptance, validation, or whatever it is you’re seeking.
This happened when I was a teenager. I was a big homo. I nearly killed myself because I grew up in a place, time, culture, class, religion, and family setting where homosexuality was a shameful thing. But also, I kept that stuff – what the world around me had deemed evil and sinful – hidden and private. Externally, I tried to become the paragon of a moral Catholic boy in as many ways as I could: praying to God, writing to God, studying the bible, wearing my crucifix, being straight, parroting Catholic views like they would undo what was going on in my heart.
I worked hard, and constantly, to be a performatively virtuous person. It obliterated my own sense of identity, my own humanity, and drove me to the point of suicide.
Thankfully, I didn’t kill myself. I got help from an anonymous mental health service, which saved my life.
I then wrote a book about my experiences. And the underlying message of that book was not just that it’s okay to be gay (although – spoiler alert – it is).
The point is that trying to conform to the world’s estimations of what makes a good person is an unhealthy and self-destructive endeavour. If you give yourself over to what the world thinks of you, you will lose yourself.
In the acknowledgements of my book, I wrote about my troubled teenage self; how my key lesson from having gone through a suicidal level of self-loathing is that I am good enough as I am.
It feels like a dereliction of duty for me to not, then, defend this idea in public, as well as in my art. There is a vexing misunderstanding that the thing that nearly killed me was homophobia. It wasn’t.
What nearly killed me was shame.
It was shame, thrown by others, internalised within me. Shame for being human, for being myself, for not being perfect, for being slightly bad. The world told me I was bad for being homosexual. I felt ashamed for it. The shame slowly destroyed my will to live.
Becoming painfully well-behaved, performing morality and flawlessness to please those in positions of authority, was the best thing I knew to do to survive at the time. But it made me sick, and I know it drives many to an early grave.
I have spent years clawing my way back from that teenage precipice. I have learned not to abandon myself, but to stay with myself. I have learned that all the shame an entire planet can throw at me cannot and will not divorce me from the knowledge that I am, at my core, okay.
Nowhere in that process of un-internalising that shame did any therapist suggest I start throwing shame back at those who had hurt me. Why would I hurt people the way I’d been hurt?
When I came out in 2008, Western culture seemed to be moving towards becoming less judgmental, less shaming, more tolerant of difference. A world more interested in living and letting live.
That idea feels laughable in 2021. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the human need to shame and punish one another supersedes any dogmatic Abrahamic religion. We currently live in a culture of permanent outrage: those we disagree with are not humans to be tolerated, but enemies to be called out and destroyed. We are not encouraged to be kind.
The crux is: my sense is that to be seen as a role model in this era would be to support and reify shame. I would be buying into a reductive, unkind system that is quite as crushingly inhumane and airless as the deeply moralistic one that almost killed me. I know how destructive that is. I know how many people take their lives because of shame. Everyone carries their own burden, often in silence. Throwing shame is destructive; internalising that shame can be fatal.
So, I won’t do it.
Trying to mould myself into who I think people want me to be would be unhealthy. My career might gain more relevance if I started ranting about sociopolitical minutiae on Twitter, but the gratification of those retweets would be cold comfort for my impaired wellbeing.
This culture has plenty of artist-activists. I don’t want to be one of them. Just “artist” is cool with me.
And I can make my peace with being a role model if that helps someone, but I would very much like to not be a good one.
I think I now understand why that original question bugged me so much. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t want to be misread. Not after having gone through some dark shit on my way to get where I am. I feel that misrepresentation would wreck me.
So, if, as my career grows, I’m going to be held up as an example of something, let it not be model behaviour.
I’d rather be an example of being flawed; of being an imperfect person in an imperfect world; of cutting yourself some slack; of being allowed to be a bloody human being.
In a culture addicted to toxic perfection, and an era so unforgiving toward human nature, I don’t believe it’s just okay for artists to show these flaws. I reckon it’s vital.
After being slightly encouraged, slightly heckled by some writing buddies on Twitter – they know who they are – I decided to join the WA branch of the #5amwritersclub.
“Branch” makes it sound far more bureaucratic and formal than it actually is: it’s a new and small collective of West Aussie writers who commit to waking up early and getting some writing done at five o’clock in the morning.
When I was first invited (peer pressured?) to join the other authors in this endeavour, my first response was there was no fucking way this was going to happen.
Not because I didn’t want to join them: they’re all grouse people and we chat on Twitter all the time.
Not because I don’t like the idea of being productive with my writing – there is almost no better feeling than having just written something.
No, I was reluctant because it involved waking up so bloody early. I feel like I’ve already sacrificed all semblances of luxury by strategically setting my alarm at 6am each morning (and then 6.10 … and 6.15 … I’m one of those desperate snooze-button fiends).
5am felt like a bridge too far.
But then I got to thinking about how hard it’s been over the past three weeks to make time for my writing. As I tutor at a university, in addition to my other jobs, the start of the uni semester always leaves my head spinning. In fact, apart from a whole lot of thinking and planning and plotting, I don’t think I’d written a word of a creative nature since February.
Crapola, I thought. No damn wonder I’ve been feeling listless and rudderless, like an athlete trapped in a hotel room.
As soon as I saw it that way, I really did start to feel caged by the chaos of my quotidian “busy-ness” and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting being an adult before being an artist. So it was a no-brainer after that. I desperately wanted to pull my sneakers on, escape the metaphorical hotel suite and go for a sprint around the block.
I went to bed early last night, and set my alarm for 4:55am. When it went off this morning, for a change I didn’t hit snooze. I admit I did go into HULK SMASH mode for the first couple of minutes, both in terms of wanting to communicate solely in monosyllabic grunts and also in terms of wanting to shatter my phone with my fist and curl back up into bed.
But I have a stubborn streak that sometimes works to my advantage: once I set my mind to something, I do it, and I do it well.
So I yanked my laptop across the plush carpet beside my bed – where I had strategically placed it last night, anticipating my Hulkish mood – flipped it open and just began writing.
I actually didn’t even sit up, which is really bad for the neck: I just remained laying in bed with the laptop awkwardly perched on my abs. (Hah! Kidding. I mean my gut. If I have abs, they are as hidden as Donald Trump’s compassionate side.)
I had a blank word document, and absolutely no plans on what I wanted to write. There was no expectation of penning an amazing literary work, nor working on my third novel draft (which is still in the planning phase).
So I sat for about thirty seconds, and a line just drifted into my mind, like I’d plucked it right out of the soul of the universe. More of an image, than a complete sentence. Within seconds I had an opening scene, and two characters, and a plan.
I wrote furiously from 5am until 7am, and in that sacred two hour block, I churned out just over 1400 words. To put this into context, when I do NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long writing sprint, my daily word count needs to remain at 1667, so to churn out 1400 words in one morning is fantastic progress.
So, what was it that I wrote? It’s definitely not a novel, or a novella. It’s the first half, maybe the first third, of a short story. It taps into a really random idea I’ve had for awhile now about a security guard, so that’s what I’m working on.
As much as the flow kind of consumed me for those two hours, I reached a point where my motor began to putt and before I knew it, I was out of fuel and running on fumes. It’s really odd how that happens when I write: one moment I’ll be excited and driven by what I’m writing, and a second later I’ll be jaded like an aristocrat slumming it at a dinner party below their station. “What is this measly short story in front of me? Ugh. Get it away. I want caviar.”
I’ve learned to listen to my writing impulses, and make way for both the flow and the ebb, so I stopped and I knew I was done for the day.
This is good, though, because it gives me something to leap straight back into when I write tomorrow. And it gives me the goal of finishing this particular short story by the end of the week.
I have no idea if taking part in the #5amwritersclub is going to work out for me long term. It worked today because Monday is my home day where I write and do admin stuff, but it might be a different story tomorrow. I’ll take it as it comes.
What I do know is that I’m keen to finish this particular short story, and I’m excited at hopefully developing a regular writing practice again.
And it makes all the difference knowing that some other writer buddies are waking up, and struggling, and striving, and tweeting, and cheering on, and succeeding right along side me.
Last November, I was lucky enough to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award from the Australian Society of Authors. The prize was a one week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House. I never expected to win the award, so the residency was an absolute dream come true.
I rushed forward and took the residency in January this year. And it’s taken me a whole four weeks of sitting on my hands to work up the motivation to write about it. It was today that I realised why I’ve been putting it off for so long. It’s because once I write this, it will actually be over – a relic of memory and experience and nothing else. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to cling to it a bit longer; keep it in the present day. But the days are passing inexorably, and the memories are no longer fresh but faded.
So I want to record them, before they atrophy any further.
Monday 15th January 2018
This day barely counts as a day of my residency, because I was in Sydney for most of it. I had breakfast at a creperie with my teenage nieces and nephews. Double maple for me. I ordered in French to an entirely unimpressed French waitress.
Lunch was at a burger joint in Sydney’s CBD with my amazing literary agent, Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency. We spent about half an hour talking excitedly before either of us remembered we were actually meant to order food. It was a brilliant meeting and I left feeling so pumped for what’s ahead of me and INVISIBLE BOYS – in 2018 and beyond.
I swanned around the city for a few hours exploring – it was my first time in Sydney, ever, and I was so enraptured. It was like being back in Europe, but this city was also so unlike Europe, and certainly a long way from anything I had ever known as Australian.
In the arvo, I collected my suitcase from my older brother’s office on George Street and then began my navigation of peak-hour traffic on Sydney’s trains. I was crushed into a skinny, cuboid version of myself – now that part was really reminiscent of being on the tube in London – and trained it out to the Blue Mountains.
I thoroughly underestimated how long the ride would take: I arrived at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, at around 8:30pm, travel-weary and kind of worried. I honestly expected to rock up to a darkened house; I kept imagining that I’d be knocking on the door to no response, calling every phone number I could to the dejection of unanswered voicemails. I figured I might have to curl up and sleep on the pebbles outside.
My reception at Varuna was actually very warm. Before I even got out of the taxi, one of the other four resident writers – the wonderful and celebrated poet (and fellow Perthite) Nandi Chinna – was already out the front of the house to greet me.
“You must be Holden,” she said. “We were worried about you.”
I was really touched by this. I was alone in a new place and a bit overwhelmed that I had even been chosen to go to Varuna. I will never forget her saying that.
The Varuna staff (who are all super nice people) had already gone home for the night, so the other writers took me into the house, gave me a tour and showed me to my room. The caterer, Sheila, had saved my dinner for me – a delicious chicken curry – so I microwaved it and wolfed it down while chatting to my fellow writers.
The vibes were immediately warm and supportive, which relaxed my nerves and made me feel ready for the next day.
Tuesday 16th January 2018
I usually wake up at 6am, so I must have been running on Perth time still as I woke at 9am and felt instantly like I’d wasted half my day. I was a bit thrown off, so I took my breakfast up to my studio to get to work straight away.
I’d been allocated the Bear Room, and I still find it hilarious that they chucked the gay bloke into something called the Bear Room. Alas, no hot bears within, but it was a charming and quaint bedroom and writing studio. I was instantly drawn to the space, even though it was the smallest of the five studios at Varuna. I could have had my pick of the bigger spaces if I’d chosen a later residency, but I was desperate to get to work as soon as possible, and January was the earliest slot that worked.
As soon as I threw the curtains open, I realised this was the perfect place for a writer to work.
Morning mountain sunlight breaking over trees and green lawn and quaint gardens below. The workspace backs directly onto my bedroom, and used to be a sunroom, which is why it’s so incredibly light and airy. I took so many photos of my view, and not a single one of them gets close to doing the view any justice. Birds were chirping, which the other writers were able to name and identify, but with my ignorance of the animal kingdom I could only gaze on and appreciate their colours, and the flutter of their wings, and their uninhibited songs.
It really was tranquil and superb.
The first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was sigh and imitate Colin Firth in the film Love, Actually when he first arrives at his writing retreat in France.
“Alone again,” I muttered to the open window. “Naturally.”
And then the work began.
I looked over INVISIBLE BOYS – the manuscript that actually won me the residency – but there was really no further change I could make without wanting to heat up a hot poker and slide it slowly into my eyeball. I was done with it, for now. I’d just delivered a fresh revision to my agent and making any further changes would be counterproductive. Not to mention the whole poker/eyeball thing.
So I started work on my next novel instead. I had the deepest pangs of latent Catholic guilt about this and I was totally waiting for someone to turn around and boot me out of the house for working on a different piece than the one that won the award. Thankfully, the awesome people at the Australian Society of Authors (who offer the Ray Koppe Award) assured me this didn’t matter; as did the friendly team at Varuna House.
My next work in progress is a contemporary YA novel with a bit of a mystery element to it. It was originally conceived as a YA thriller and so I knew I had to do some work to rejig the outline and shift its focus and locus of control, as it were. I desperately wanted to just start throwing words on the page, but even though it would have felt productive, it would have been a Sisyphean task.
So I spent the whole day plotting. That’s it. All day. Plotting what would happen when. Changing characters’ names. Changing them all back two hours later. Deciding someone would die. Then saving them. Then killing them off again.
In the arvo, I went for a run around the nearby streets of Katoomba, which is the main town in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is such a beautiful town: green and lush with trees so much bigger than the dirt and scrub I grew up around.
What really threw me about Katoomba was how mountainous it was. Not just the nearby indigo shapes of the peaks: I mean just the streets themselves. I have never realised how incredibly flat Western Australia is compared to somewhere like the Blue Mountains. Every street was a massive slope, and I constantly felt like Atlas was about to shake the world globe and I’d go sliding off the face of the planet. On and off all week, I was actually pretty dizzy.
The run did me good after a day of heavy plotting. Sweating, getting back into my body, is some of the best healing I have found.
Wednesday 17th January 2018
When you’re a writer, and especially when you’re undertaking a residency, I think the expectation you put on yourself is that you will write a lot of pages. Pages are sexy.
But I spent Wednesday returning to my necessary outlining and planning documents, including Excel spreadsheets, which are the least sexy or creative thing in the entire universe.
The Varuna staff asked me if I wanted a writing consultation with an excellent editor who could help me with my work. I had to say no – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t afford it. That stung me, and made me feel like a bit of a lame duck.
Over the course of the day, I continued to work hard, but I started to feel frustrated. I wasn’t producing page after page of good writing. I wasn’t even producing page after page of shit writing that could be fixed later on. I was just plotting, and even though I knew it was necessary, I started to feel stagnant, like algae in a river’s listless meander.
In fact, I started to feel like a failure. And then a fraud. What kind of useless writer was I? Fucking around with plots and plans when the other four around me were probably churning out literary masterpieces with panache. Oh God. I’d actually won this place. Some very esteemed judges picked my writing over every other entrant’s.
And here I was screwing around in my spreadsheet. I bet the other entrants would have done so much better than me. Written more than me.
I spiralled down. Big time.
That night at dinner, the imposter syndrome ramped up to eleven. I don’t really know why, but probably because of the spiral I was already in, my insecurities got amplified.
Incidentally, one of my favourite things about the entire Varuna experience was that every night, all five resident authors come together in the dining room and share a catered meal together. The food by the amazing cook Sheila was delicious; the conversation was always vibrant and there was plenty of laughter.
There was also so much to learn from my fellow writers. About writing, about craft, about passion, about publishing, about promotion, about sales, about business. About being an artist.
This is, in fact, one of the most valuable things about being a Varuna writer. Having dinner and conversation with a diverse group of both emerging, developing and established authors every night for a week goes beyond even the best networking. I would liken it to being on summer camp. There’s something about sharing a living space with a group of people that bonds you in some way. It was truly an uplifting experience, and I grew from it – as an artist and as a man.
On the Wednesday night, however, I was spiralling hard. No matter what progress I make in my career as an author, I inevitably find myself feeling like an imposter. That night, as all these published and successful people sat around the table talking about something highly intellectual, I felt like the dumb outsider, the uncultured and poorly-read bogan, the country boy who for a whole number of reasons did not belong at that table, and never would.
I didn’t sleep that night.
Thursday 18th January 2018
When I say I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, I’m exaggerating a touch. I crashed for three hours after chatting to my fiancé over text (silence is vital in the rooms at Varuna as the walls are thin and other writers might be concentrating). But I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. My synapses were sparking, still short-circuiting with the fear I didn’t belong here.
I opened the curtains of the Bear Room at around 4am. I listened to some music in my earphones and watched the sky outside slowly change colour, quietly hoping I could trick myself into sleep somehow.
It didn’t work.
I was utterly wrecked on Thursday. I opened my laptop and felt like throwing up. Nope. Not today.
Instead, I read a novel: Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. An excellent piece of fantasy spliced with sci-fi (or maybe the other way around).
I tried naps. They failed.
In the arvo, I abandoned trying to rest or trying to write. I put on my cap and my backpack and went for a hike up to Echo Point, which is where you can see the natural rock formations known as the Three Sisters. It was incredible to face out onto an open green valley and feel so tiny compared to the earth and its body.
There was a bar close to Echo Point. I went out onto the terrace which overhung the verdant valley. I drank lemonade over ice, stared out at nature, listened to tourists speaking foreign tongues around me, and wrote several pages of notes in the monogrammed Moleskine journal my agent gave me for Christmas.
I walked back to Varuna, thinking the walk would have exhausted me enough for a late arvo nap, but no cigar. I was at that point where tiredness turns to astonishment that you can possibly still be awake.
Dinner that night was the best one of my whole stay at Varuna. Not in terms of the food – that was uniformly delicious – but the banter. The night started on a positive note, with fellow Varuna resident Miranda Luby finding out she had a short story shortlisted for an award. The spirit among everyone was one of congratulations and collegiality.
After our usual dinner conversation we went off on a tangent talking about words we each despise – stuff like the ambiguous “inappropriate” or actually saying the word “hashtag”. My word was “impactful”. It crops up more and more each year but it is NOT a bloody word. And even if “impactful” becomes a recognised word by some shitty dictionary, it shall nevertheless forever remain a hideously inelegant one.
Back in the Bear Room, sleep finally hit me, like a house brick to the face.
Friday 19th January 2018
It’s not until you wake up feeling human again that you realise you weren’t feeling human before. Friday morning did that: it was like I’d been booked into the Pokémon Centre overnight and was now at full HP and fighting fit again (thanks, Nurse Joy!).
So battle, at last, I did.
Friday was the day where the writing finally flowed. I wrote about 2000 words, which is more than my daily average when I do something like NaNoWriMo, so I’d call it a success. I reckon it felt especially exultant after the nadir of the previous couple of days.
There was a relief that came with writing what was basically the first chapter of my new novel. The pressure valve was released. I didn’t feel like a total fuck-up. And when I closed my laptop late that afternoon, I felt like I’d actually achieved some of what I was sent here to do.
It made for an uplifting end to the week. I went to the local Katoomba shire gym (which, for any future resident’s knowledge, requires you to traverse one of the steepest slopes in town). I lifted weights. Sheila made us all pizza for tea. It was excellent.
At about 9:30pm I went for a night-time stroll down the main drag of Katoomba. With everyone else silent in their rooms, and after five days without a television or other background noise in the house, I desperately needed to be around some sound and movement.
I ended up at the Station Bar in the heart of Katoomba. Two hours of soul-replenishing live rock ‘n’ roll.
Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2018
After finally churning out some pages and making good progress on my novel, I relaxed a bit on the weekend – both Saturday and Sunday. I made time to finally explore Katoomba in more depth, by which I mostly mean I ate a lot of food. Gelato, waffles, coffee, baked goods, pretty much anything that I shouldn’t have been eating.
I also went to a local barber and got a haircut (the Mohawk doesn’t trim itself) and walked around a classic car convention that had taken over the main street. Katoomba has an artsy, touristy vibe the way WA’s South West towns do – though it’s probably amped up a lot more.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Varuna is that each room has its own library, which is fundamentally cool. Even better, each library is different to the other in terms of the geographic origin of its tomes. For instance, one of the rooms might have Asian fiction, a second one might just have Australian books, and so on.
The Bear Room was home to the European Collection, and the calibre of novelists and writers and thinkers on the shelf beside me was unbelievable. I felt quite humbled, looking at these famous spines and titles, some of them household names and some of them quite unknown to me but critically acclaimed and influential writers of their times.
This also reignited the ambition flame in me: I want to be like them. I want to my books on these shelves. I want my name on spines.
I flicked through some books and read what I could, but there wasn’t time for everything. The piece I remember best was a story called “Adam, One Afternoon” in a collection by Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino. It sticks in my mind because it was so incredibly light and very odd and unsettling at the same time. The flow of the writing was somehow hypnotic and I both liked and was unnerved by it.
The other aspect of Varuna that I haven’t really talked about is the fellow writers. I am reticent to go into too much detail about the other authors I stayed with, because I guess that’s their story and I don’t know how much detail they like to share about their jaunts and residencies. They may be intensely private people, so I’ve kept this part minimal.
But honestly, the other authors are such a massive part of what makes a residency at Varuna worthwhile. I learned so much from them in different ways.
Gabrielle Carey (non-fiction author, and co-author of the very famous novel Puberty Blues) had some real insights on the publishing industry. She also holds the distinct honour of being the person who (very generously) taught me step by step how to make percolated coffee when she found me bumbling around the Varuna kitchen on my first day.
Stuart Cooke (published poet and academic) shared so much about the inner workings of the poetry world, and of the difference between poetry in different languages. He is also well-versed in cat videos and is the most proficient dishwasher stacker known to man.
Nandi Chinna (poet, essayist, eco-activist) has one of the most friendly spirits of any human I’ve encountered. Apart from making me feel exceedingly welcome, she also taught me a lot about publishing, and poetry, and ecology, and birds. She also made me stop beating myself up about not making progress and stressed the importance of taking break days – which was vital to getting through my Varuna experience with my ego intact.
Miranda Luby (fellow YA author) was a kindred spirit in a lot of ways. We both write YA fiction; we’re both emerging authors; we’re both enjoying the last of our twenties; and we are both ambitious and relentless in our drive to get our debut novels published. I had a fantastic time connecting with Miranda and we’ve continued to connect on social media. Watch out for this one – I think her debut novel will do big things, and I’m kind of quietly hoping we’ll both end up on some YA author panel at a festival a few years from now.
I think the main thing I want to point out here is that the five of us were all so different from one another. Non-fiction authors. Academics. Poets. YA contemporary and YA fantasy authors. Despite my insecurities earlier in the week, by the time it came to Sunday night dinner I realised Varuna House is a place for all writers. We all belonged there.
Even displaced country boys who write YA fiction.
Monday 22nd January 2018
Miranda and I left Varuna in a taxi Nandi had kindly arranged for us. As the taxi arrived, I realised I hadn’t written in the Varuna guest book, so I dashed out the quickest and most uninspired message in history while the taxi driver waited. Then, duty done, I fled.
I had a great chat with Miranda on the journey back to Sydney. And as viridian mountains receded to the fumes and umber of the outer suburbs, I realised this whole adventure really was over. I felt like an American kid coming back from summer camp. I’d learned a lot. I’d seen new places. I’d made new friends. And I wanted to come back again next summer, preferably for even longer.
So many published authors tell younger writers that the key to success is to “write every day”. The spectre of this advice cast a long shadow over my stay at Varuna, until I recently saw a tweet by bestselling fantasy author Garth Nix.
Garth made a point that writing every day does not necessarily mean pumping out words of usable prose daily. It also means outlining. Dreaming. Plotting. Picking character names. Making Excel spreadsheets for chapter outlines. Writing a sentence and deleting it. Jotting down notes in a journal. Exploring a new place. Reading books and finding inspiration. Even just staring into space thinking about what you’re going to do next with the unwieldy blob of clay that is your work in progress.
And Varuna made all of that happen for me. I got a lot done. I made some progress on my next novel. I learned about writing and editing and publishing. I learned about mountains and birds and nature and poems. I learned about myself and I slayed a few demons (or at the very least, I fired some warning shots across their noses).
I have to thank everyone who made this experience possible for me: the awesome team at the Australian Society of Authors; Ray Koppe and the Koppe family for their generous legacy and gift; the award judges Tristan Bancks and Aoife Clifford for thinking INVISIBLE BOYS was good enough; and the team at Varuna who were so willing to help with anything I needed during my stay.
If you’re ever considering a residency at Varuna, or anywhere else, do it.
Especially do it if you think you’re not good enough, or that you won’t belong there, because you might just get lucky and discover that you are, and you do.
I have to admit I usually don’t bother myself with questions like this. Partly because I tend to think of them as pseudo-philosophical bollocks: there’s no point reflecting on who you are; just be. Partly because it is a super cliché artist question and I view it with some level of disdain (I have been told I am just a tad judgmental …). And partly because I can only hear “Who am I?” asked in a Derek Zoolander voice, and that thought makes the teenage boy inside me – who adulthood has never quite managed to kill off – guffaw like a boofhead.
But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been dwelling pretty extensively on this question and others. Who is Holden Sheppard? What am I all about? Why do I exist? Why do I write? What do I want?
It all started innocently enough: I attended a guest lecture by an advertising expert who talked about the importance of personal branding. I was intrigued and made some vague notes, but didn’t allocate much time to actually coming up with an answer.
A few weeks later, my quest for personal development brought me to a workshop at the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre in Joondalup. The topic was Personal Branding, Marketing and Social Media for Authors, facilitated by a truly brilliant consumer psychologist and author, Glennys Marsdon. I don’t use the word “brilliant” lightly here: Glennys is a superstar and laser-sharp, and I could not recommend her advice more highly if you are an author at any stage of your journey.
I never knew a simple three-hour workshop could have such an impact on me.
Glennys’ workshop – both during and after – made me reflect deeply, and at length, about who I am and who I want to be. And finding a concrete, clear sense of identity was actually quite difficult.
I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks now; this post, in fact, has been sitting as a draft for weeks because I couldn’t quite get my head around it.
I’ve been analysing myself, maybe a little too harshly, and essentially trying to work out why this is such a difficult task for me. And I think I’ve zeroed in on the crux: I have a lifelong tendency to be highly adaptable to my environment. My (very human) instincts as a kid and even as a grown man have been to adapt, fit in, be normal, as I found myself in each new environment.
For instance, I was a bookish kid and I felt really isolated in a lot of ways during high school. There was an external persona that learned how to (barely) survive in peer groups at high school; while the more bookish, creative, outspoken side of me learned to flourish only in online forums among fellow writers and readers and gamers.
This model of behaviour adaptation has chased me through life. At uni, I would drink coffee and talk about literature and theory and culture and feelings with my uni mates – during the day. At night I’d hang out with a different set of mates, drinking VB from long necks and playing pool and generally being bogans.
When I worked as a labourer and mini-excavator operator, I talked differently – every second word was “fuck” or “cunt”; when I went to a uni environment, my lecturers said they couldn’t understand me when I spoke, and so again I learned to adapt, speaking as clearly and professionally as I could.
The point I’m making is that I have successively adapted from the expectations of one setting to another, over and over, modifying my behaviour and personality to some extent each time. To some degree, this is quite normal and is probably a form of “code-switching”; it has also probably been the vehicle of my ability to succeed in a range of different sectors and environments.
The downside is that I have worked so hard to ensure I am meeting, exceeding and pleasing the expectations of external environments and people that my ability to meet, exceed and please my own sense of identity has atrophied over time.
When Glennys asked me to think about how Holden Sheppard, the author, was different to me as a person, I couldn’t find an answer. I realise, now, that is because there isn’t really a distinguishable difference. The way I present myself as an author is reflective of how I present myself as a person who works for a university.
Professional. Inoffensive. Clean. Even – shudder – kind of wholesome at times.
But does any of this let me express who I actually feel I am inside? The version of me that expresses itself in my personal life, in my self-expression, in my written expression? Is it what I’m really like in person, or who I want to be? Is it in line with my “personal brand” – or even with my actual, authentic personality?
Not at all.
So, my task is clear, and it’s no small feat. I need to dig around for a while and work out exactly who I think I am. More importantly, who do I want to be? What do I value? What’s important to me? This is actually very liberating, because so far I have been operating on the assumption that to be liked means I need to be neutral, professional and inoffensive – but these terms are nothing like how I would actually describe myself.
I suppose you could say I’ve been putting on a particular front, or persona, to protect myself – and to avoid letting too much real stuff shine through.
That’s going to change.
I don’t have the answers just yet, but, as Cat Stevens once sang, I’m now on the road to find out.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s no wonder people think writers are head cases. We make absolutely no sense as creatures, and least of all to ourselves. There are about 8263283 reasons why this is a true statement, but for today I’m focusing on our unique capacity to vacillate between Regina George-level attention whores and panicky, milquetoast, aw-shucks-m’am Clark Kent types.
Specifically, when it comes to promo.
So, in late July, and again in mid-August, a couple of opportunities cropped up for me to promote my work (and myself) on radio.
On one hand, as a writer, I crave attention. I want my work to be well-received and for it to reach as many people as possible. And I really enjoy speaking about my stories, too. So these opportunities were incredible, and I jumped at them both.
But despite being a fairly extroverted kind of guy, especially for a geeky artist, I was completely shitting myself both times.
My first instinct when it comes to promotion is panic. There is something incredibly vulnerable about actually putting yourself out there for people to listen to, or read about. It taps in to many old insecurities: what if I am not interesting? Unlikable? Sound foolish? Get tripped up by a popular culture reference I don’t understand? And then there’s all the more primal insecurities: what does my voice sound like on radio? Is it rich enough, compared to the seasoned broadcasters? Do I sound too much like a bogan? What if I have a sneezing fit at the exact moment I go on air?
The second response is “say yes, you dumb arse, before they change their mind and rescind the invite!”
I’ve been fostering my writing career for some time, so I’m savvy enough to say yes to every opportunity. Well, every good opportunity. There are a lot of dodgy offers out there, though mostly on the Internet as opposed to the traditional media. Nonetheless, once I do agree to some promo, it brings on nights of restless sleep and causes my stomach to churn even more frequently than Harry Potter’s did in The Order of the Phoenix. (Seriously, Rowling mentions his guts roughly once every ten pages. Especially when Cho Chang is around. Check if you don’t believe me.)
When I was featured on Thursdays with Robyn on Twin Cities 89.7 FM in July, I was
nervous as hell right up until we went on air. Once that switch was flicked on the console, I reverted back instantly to my days as a radio host (many moons ago, I did some community radio) and the confidence came back. Robyn was a fantastic host, highly accomplished and professional and we had some great banter. I was thrilled to read excerpts from THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR and THE BLACK FLOWER, as well as chatting about my writing, my background and writing in general. The full clip is on my YouTube channel here.
I really enjoyed the experience in and of itself – but I was also delighted when I had a huge sales spike that same day. That spike helped land THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR at #3 on the iTunes Epic Fantasy Chart and #19 on the Barnes & Noble Fantasy Short Stories Chart. I was stoked. Pushing through the nerves paid off.
More recently, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about Australia’s same-sex marriage postal vote, which is hugely contentious right now. The piece was unexpectedly very well received and went viral. I had messages from people across the country – everything from dissent and abuse to praise and thanks and support. I was very touched by the response to the article, and so glad that something I wrote (initially intended for this blog) ended up not only getting published in the mainstream press but seemed to make an impact on the discourse around this issue.
One of the people who read the piece was Tanya Wilks, co-host of the breakfast show on Newcastle’s top-rated brekky radio show, Tanya & Steve, on KOFM 102.9 FM Newcastle. Tanya’s producer reached out to me and the next morning, I was on air discussing not just the article, but the highly personal nature of it.
I was a giant bundle of nerves for the entire day and night before the interview. (Harry’s stomach tumbled like a washing machine as he spotted Cho drinking a butterbeer …) This one was more nerve-racking than the first. Instead of talking about my writing output and myself as an author, I was talking about a very hotly-debated topic and about myself as a human – and as a man who is affected directly by the marriage equality debate.
As it panned out, Tanya and Steve were fantastic hosts and asked some really insightful questions. I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself on air; I didn’t pass out from sharing stuff that was too close to the bone; and I didn’t drop a turd in my jocks. These are all my criteria for nailing it at life, so that was a win.
What I’ve really learned from these experienced is that I want to get more comfortable with doing promo. I absolutely love sharing and talking about my work, and I am a good public speaker and an engaging presenter and lecturer, but I want to get even better at this. So, as with anything worth doing, I’m going to start seeking out more opportunities to practice this whole promotion shebang. Like a runner training for a marathon, I want to start getting in shape and really stepping up my game in how I approach promo and how I handle the nerves. I want to be able to tackle these opportunities with aplomb.
My measures for success? No more Order of the Phoenix stomach-sloshing every time Cho Chang appears.