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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking in Someone Else’s Voice

I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.

As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.

As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.

When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.

When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.

When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).

rowling

As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.

But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.

When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.

Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.

And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.

So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)

With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.

So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.

Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.

It was zero.

Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.

But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.

stephen king

The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.

My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.

This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.

When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.

This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.

But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.

My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.

It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo

I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.

And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.

So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.

I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.

I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.

characters off track

I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.

It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.

But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.

I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.

I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:

Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.

I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).

Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.

I’m just glad to have found mine.

Holden

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

The late (and extraordinary) Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part”.

Man, there’s nothing like becoming a writer to discover how true that saying is.

As much as we moan about having to spin our drafts out of thin air (we are basically wizards, thank you very much) or gnash our teeth over editing our messy manuscripts, both of these tasks are more pleasant than what comes next.

The WAITING.

It doesn’t matter much whether we write short form or long form, the publishing industry inevitably involves massive long wait times. Waiting for an agent or editor to respond to our query usually leaves most authors, including me, checking my inbox at least twice a day (even when your agent is as lightning-fast as mine was when she decided to represent me). The same goes for submitting short fiction to journals. In the past, when I’ve had something out on submission, it would drive me kind of nuts for those weeks or months until I had a response.

Of course, up until this year, I was submitting relatively sporadically, so there were spells where I’d have absolutely nothing on submission. This was actually quite restful, as it allowed me to feel like one of those normal human beings who have their hearts planted firmly within their chests. Being on submission, by contrast, feels to me like I am living each day with my heart dangling on the outside of my rib cage.

I feel like the world can see every fine detail printed on my heart’s ventricular muscles; every vulnerability of my soul is on lurid display for people to either nurture or spit on.

And most of the time, it gets spat on.

I know I ought to be more resilient than this (there I go finding fancy ways to say that violent word “should” again). But the reality is, every rejection hurts so much. I feel like I’ve offered up a vulnerable sliver of my inner essence on a golden platter and held it above my head as a sacrifice to the Writing Gods, hoping to please them. And when that ritual sacrifice is deemed not good enough, I feel that I have been deemed not good enough, and it feels like this foolish mortal shed blood for nothing at all.

Now, all this angsty cluster of writer feels was kind of bearable when I was submitting sporadically. I’d go through times of agonised waiting followed by months where I could cram my heart back into my body and feel the circulation gloriously return to my limbs.

But as of a few months ago, I’ve been on constant submission. My second novel is now on submission to publishers thanks to my brilliant agent (and publishing is an industry notorious for moving at a glacial pace, so I have nothing concrete to share yet). Beyond that, I’ve been subbing my short fiction to a range of literary journals, as well as pitching some ideas for freelance journalism to news outlets.

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Tom Petty knew what was up.

The upshot of this is: since March, I have been constantly waiting for one project or another to be accepted or rejected, with no real end in sight. This means I have been constantly living with my poor heart thumping desperately in the exposed, polluted air outside my body.

In the past, this sensation has overwhelmed me, and I’ve sought to numb the fragility of being an artist. Sometimes it was with substances (it’s hard to feel worried about your writing when you’re saturated in bourbon), othertimes it was with overwork (no time to worry about rejection if you’re too busy to even scratch yourself), and occasionally both of these crossed over and led to some inglorious meltdowns.

And at the very worst of times, I responded to this fearful state of vulnerability with the total abnegation of my role as an artist. That is, I stopped submitting, and I stopped editing, and I stopped writing. The most pronounced of these times were in 2010 and 2013, when I didn’t write a word (and as I’ve mentioned recently, not writing makes me sick).

But being on constant submission this past three months has made me realise something important. The “submission” phase of writing – where we jettison our precious creations into the ether to be either embraced or (more often than not) scorned – is not meant to be unusual or rare. It is a required part of the process, and for any of us to become successful or resilient writers, I think it needs to be regular.

I’m starting to see that the uncomfortable state of living with our hearts outside our bodies is not an unintended side-effect of being an artist. Being an artist requires it.

That is, for me to succeed as a writer, my art requires me to not just be vulnerable in my writing itself, but in life. And it’s supposed to be constant. In the past, I’ve tried to control my vulnerability. I’ve imagined I could turn it on and off like a tap. Time to write a first draft? Vulnerability on. Draft finished? Vulnerability off. (Yes, this is a bit of a wax on, wax off moment for Holden-san.) Consequentially, my writing progressed in fits and starts, and I would write only when I felt I was emotionally capable of surviving the rivulets of feelings that would come pouring out of me.

But being constantly on submission, and thus constantly vulnerable, since March has not actually been the torture I had anticipated.

Actually, it’s been profoundly productive, and kind of awesome, despite the waiting.

When you go out on submission, the first thing your agent tells you to do is start writing your next novel. This is to distract us authors and our hamster-wheel brains from freaking out about the waiting involved in the submission process, and it also ensures that we are focusing on producing more work to be submitted.

feel my feelings
I’m pretty sure all writers are “sensies” like JD from Scrubs. I know I am.

So, to occupy myself while being on constant submission, I’ve been constantly writing since March, which is around the same time I joined my awesome buds in the #5amwritersclub. As a result, I’ve churned out six pieces of short fiction – one piece of flash fiction, four short stories, and a whole novella – in just three months, not to mention writing a published article for Ten Daily and developing and performing an oral story for the Bright Lights, No City project. Outside of my frenzied novel-writing adventures, this is the most productive I’ve ever been with my writing.

Is the waiting hard? Hell yeah.

But does it actually make me a better, more productive writer? Hell yeah.

I’m now comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable for a living. It’s possible that for much of the rest of my life I will constantly have a piece of work out in the world that I’m waiting to hear back on. I’m okay with this. It means I’m constantly trying, even if I regularly fail. Maybe most importantly, the waiting teaches me that vulnerability, and feeling my feelings, will not actually kill me. Accepting my vulnerability makes me a better human and a better writer.

I’m learning that an artist’s heart can survive outside the body for many years, and rather than wilt or perish, it only learns to pump harder than ever.

Here’s to the waiting, Tom.

Holden

What Self-Sabotage Really Looks Like

If I don’t write, I get sick.

I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)

And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)

The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.

A soul disease, maybe.

All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.

When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).

Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.

American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.

quote-it-s-hell-writing-and-it-s-hell-not-writing-the-only-tolerable-state-is-having-just-robert-hass-71-84-52

And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.

But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.

And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.

This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.

Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.

And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.

It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.

The graph looked like this:

Blog Stats Graph - Holden
Blog Hits: Because I’m a geek.

So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”

This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.

Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.

Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.

Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)

But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.

The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.

And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.

Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.

The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.

And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.

I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.

I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.

This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.

On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.

The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:

quality tweet

It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.

And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.

When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.

So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.

I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.

But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.

What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.

So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.

I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.

I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.

I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.

And my best is good enough.

Holden

He Shoots, He … Well, He Tried

A week ago, I set a whole bunch of what I thought were quite achievable goals, and I promised that I would check back in to say how I travelled.

I’m doing this because making a goal without actually reporting back on the outcome, whether good or bad, feels incomplete. And, especially if I didn’t do well, it would be all too easy to just never bring this up again.

But I’m not doing this either to beat myself up or to clap myself on the back, really. I’m doing it to keep myself accountable, and also to find out if the goals I set for myself are actually realistic or not.

So – how did I do?

1. Get up on time for the #5amwritersclub (four times)

I actually managed to hit this goal! I had to use my Saturday morning in order to do it, but I got there, and I’m pretty chuffed. Waking up early is hard and to be honest it’s rare that I’m out of bed bang on 5am, but getting up for work and knowing I’ve already done my writing hours for the day is a very good feeling: it means I can start the day in a happy haze, almost like a post-coital afterglow. As Robert Hass said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” This is very true.

2. Hit the Gym (four times)

My aim was to hit the gym four times, which is the new routine my trainer has set for me. The plan was to go on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

I manged to get to the gym three out of four times, which is not too bad and I’m not too bothered by missing the mark. Interestingly, I got there on Saturday instead of Friday, which has made me rethink how I’ll do this next time. Friday is one of my busiest days of the week with professional work and teaching at uni, so it makes absolutely no sense to try scheduling a workout in there, too.

Next week, I’m going to try for Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Thursday and Friday – my two most hectic days where I have a 1.5 hour commute each way to boot – will be kept sacrosanct, so when I get home I can just collapse. And Monday will be enshrined as my writing day, kept separate from every other commitment behind one of those thick velvet ropes.

3. Stick to my Meal Plan Perfectly (for seven days)

This is a big, fat, red-text fail. I already knew it would be hard not to snack while marking, and I held it together relatively well until Thursday, when the wheels fell off and I ended up spending $18 on creating the largest custom-made party mix known to mankind (and eating the entire thing in two days). In fact, in stark contrast to my goal, this week was probably the worst my diet has been for some time.

party mix extreme
My preciousssss!

On the upside, my meals were all still in line with my diet plan, and I still got in all my protein shakes and egg whites and all the plain meat and vegetables I’m supposed to consume. It’s just that my snacks got in the way, especially from Thursday to Saturday. Still, I live and learn. Not giving in to temporary setbacks and failure is how I’ve gotten anything I have in life: persistence is key, and eventually things fall into place.

4. Sleep a LOT

Yeah, look, I did sleep a lot, and I don’t really have anything exciting to say about it, other than I did what I set out to do. It takes some real goddamn skill to lay very still and do nothing for seven hours.

5. Don’t Burn Out Again

I didn’t burn out last week. The signs are starting to mount that I’m getting close to a burnout, though, so I need to start taking steps now to take proper care of myself.

6. Write a Blog Post

Bam! I nailed this. I think I wrote three blog posts in the space of a week: one about failure, one about new goals, and one which was a review of Louise Allan’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song (which was remarkably successful compared to other reviews I’ve done ages ago, so maybe I need to do more of these!).

7. LIVE, DAMN YOU, LIVE!

I’m starting to realise that Holden is becoming a dull boy, and that’s really shitty, but I hardly did any living this past week. I set myself the goal of having the whole weekend to live and enjoy, and the reality was I ended up marking and editing and submitting short stories off to journals.

For whatever reason, my personality is so flawed that I find it difficult to find ways to have fun. I didn’t used to be like this, but the more I try to juggle everything at once (working several jobs, volunteering, writing, writer admin, gym) the more my fun time gets squeezed out of my schedule, like the last gasp of minty toothpaste from a rolled-up tube.

I really, really need to stop and take some time soon not just to rest, but to actively have fun.

On balance, despite fucking some of these goals up beyond all recognition, I reckon I did okay this past week. Most importantly, I’m keen to keep trying, and trying, until I get it right, which is, I reckon, the answer to most things in life.

Onwards and upwards.

Holden

 

 

You Lose. Continue?

When the wheels fall off my life, I like to use it as a chance to reassess what I’m doing.

And this last couple of weeks, the wheels did kinda fall off. I’m talking action-movie style, tyres spinning off into burning alleyways while the metal underbelly of the cab churned against bitumen, rose-gold sparks spraying into the air until I crashed into a truck and burst into flames.

I did it again, didn’t I? I over-inflated an innocent metaphor and killed the poor bastard. Well, fuck it. As a writer, I reserve the right to make a mountain out of sawdust.

Anyway, the whole life unravelling thing pissed me off all the more because I’d made a great start to April. In terms of writing productivity, I was more productive than at any time in my career, with the probable exception of my NaNoWriMo efforts. It’s all thanks to my involvement in the Perth troupe (band? auxiliary? battalion?) of the #5amwritersclub. A bunch of us from across WA check in with each other on Twitter at 5am, churn out some writing and by 7am or so, we’re done. We keep each other accountable, get work done, and foster friendships by communicating solely through monosyllabic grunts, GIFs and references to how much we hate being awake at 5am.

everything is awesome
The official theme song to the #5amwritersclub.

Although I was initially kind of coerced into it, joining the club is one of the best decisions I’ve made for my writing career. Since joining in March, I’ve already used my early starts to complete three short story drafts: one called SECURITY, about a security guard (defo need a better title); one called MOONLIGHT (which has a title I love); and one based on my career as a banker, which I am not going to name yet for a couple of reasons.

Not only does developing a regular, early-morning writing practice boost my productivity, it also helps me start each day with a sense of achievement. I can get ready for work in the knowledge that I’ve already done my creative writing for the day, and I don’t need to stress about fitting it in when I get home all exhausted from my hellish day that nobody could possibly understand  fairly cushy university job.

But because writing in the #5amwritersclub makes my day, and my week, so much brighter, it wields the power of a double-edged sword – much like the kind Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with. (Sorry, I’m a hardcore 30 Rock fan and can’t write the words “double-edged sword” without making that reference.)

double edged sword
Gets me every time.

The point is – if I make it to the #5amwritersclub, I’m all pumped for the day. If I miss it, I’m back in Hulk Smash mode.

And so for the past couple of weeks, when I was staying up too late and overtired from work and marking papers, I began to struggle to wake up at 5am at all. Even 6am became impossible. I faltered. I was waking up more tired than when I went to bed, and I barely appeared at the morning roll call. And then last week I pretty much threw it in entirely and gave up.

Then it flowed on to everything: my eating (my meals were fine, but I snacked a lot while marking … helloooo Lindt dark chocolate), my exercise schedule (I only did two and a half workouts instead of four), my sleep (don’t have to be up at 5am? browse the Internet until you pass out!) and my overall wellbeing (I became overwhelmed and overstimulated by even the slightest things).

I even went to write a blog post about how I was failing at everything, and then I couldn’t even make the time for that. It sat there for days with nothing but a vague title that I later deleted.

Yes, I literally failed at writing about how I was failing.

I pushed all my writing tasks and the things I wanted to do back further and further, until they were looming over my weekend, and then I got sick. I left work on Friday with a sore throat, checked in the mirror to see lumps of pus the size of Ukraine on my tonsils, and called it a week. I flopped on the couch after work, and when I woke up I was dizzy and exhausted.

tired af
Failure can be so exhausting.

I spent most of Saturday in bed, steamrollered, and that was the point at which I stopped trying to make my week less of a failure. You know what? It just was. The whole week sucked. I sucked. Everything sucked.

Oddly, once I just accepted that, it became a lot easier for me to bear.

I have such a resistance to failure. Maybe it’s my own overachiever personality, or maybe the way society generally encourages us not to associate with failure (because who wants to be a loser?), but I really resist accepting when I’m beat.

But I think, sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge that your week, or month, didn’t go the way you planned. You didn’t get everything done that you wanted to get done. Goals and deadlines went unmet. Perfection was not attained.

You failed.

And I’m learning that failure does not kill you; resisting it does.

And treating a one-off failure as a permanent state of being can paralyse you.

So, I’m going to try to view my failed week in the same way I view my successful weeks. That is, having a whole week of failure as a writer, just like having a whole week of success, is:

  • temporary
  • part of the process
  • normal
  • acceptable
  • survivable
  • not a permanent state of being
  • does not mean next week will necessarily be the same
  • not indicative of my value as an author
  • not indicative of my value as a homo sapien

In the fighting video game Tekken (or at least, in the 90s era Tekken 2), losing a fight resulted in the game announcing in a sinister, almost mocking voice:

“YOU LOSE.”

But it was never GAME OVER immediately. The game always gave you a choice to continue. You could go on fighting, maybe learn from your defeat, modify your technique and come back again with a win, or you could give up and choose game over. The choice always remained with the player.

michelle tekken
Come on, Michelle! GET UP! Ganryu won’t uppercut himself.

Having a shitty week is a gift in a way, because it gives me a choice: I could accept my bad week as game over, or I could spam the X button to continue the game and try again.

And the vigour with which I hit that X button tells me everything I need to know about myself. That I don’t need to worry about failures and setbacks, as long as I get back up, brush myself off and try one more time to defeat Kazuya.

So, I spent Sunday night reassessing, and making new goals for the week ahead, and here I am at #5amwritersclub, writing a new blog post. That’s one goal down.

It’s a new day, and a new week lies ahead, spread out like a dewy valley, untrammelled by either my boots or my neurosis. Anything can happen if I make it happen.

So, I’m back in the saddle and ready to get some shit done, but I think failure deserves three cheers for getting me back here.

Holden