How A Moment of New Year’s Rage Made Me Set Goals Every Year

This time last year, I blogged about 2020 being a shitshow, but that it seemed like ‘the tide was turning’ for 2021.

Fucken woops.

For many, 2021 was as bad as, or worse than, 2020. And it looks like 2022 is heading for a rocky start, too.

It might seem weird to do things like goal-setting, or writing, when the world is a tyre fire.

But doom scrolling on Twitter isn’t useful: it’s a huge sapper of creative energy and is best avoided. The world’s fortunes are beyond my control.

What is within my control is what I’m going to spend my energy on this year.

I find solace in escaping into writing, and setting goals at the start of a new year always motivates me to work hard.

Before I evaluate my 2021 goals and set my 2022 goals, though, I want to touch on a couple of things around goals.

Earlier this week, an emerging writer contacted me for advice. He felt plagued by self-doubt (as we all do) and said that since I seem big on setting and reaching goals, he wanted to know how I keep focused.

We chatted about it, but his observation validated why I do these blogs each year, because there was a time when people in my life had no concept that I actually worked hard.

Years ago, I remember sharing some good career news with a family member, and he replied dismissively, ‘Oh yeah, you’re always just so lucky. Shit just falls in your lap.’

I wanted to shout at him, because this was such a skewed perspective. That opportunity did not just fall in my lap: I had to get a degree, then an Honours year, then achieve a bunch of stuff, then spend years networking, proving my worth and actually asking for it.

I outlined this to him, but he just shrugged like ‘sure, whatever man’.

His mind was made up: to him, I led an unfairly charmed life, and my success was due to me being more cosmically fortunate than him. Dumb luck.

I think this is really misunderstood about artists. Our successes seem to happen miraculously, but there is so much unseen, unpaid work behind all of it. For every publication, years of toiling at a desk, full of self-doubt, with zero promise of any payoff.

Creative success is an iceberg: people see the single achievement, but not the years of ruthless determination and work that made it happen.

So, when emerging writers ask for my advice, I always say you need to first set clear goals: what are you trying to achieve, and by when.

Next, you need to actively block out the time into your calendar, every week of the coming year, to allocate towards working at each goal.

Your goals need to dictate what your daily life looks like.

I don’t think this can be taught. There just needs to be a moment where the desire to achieve your goals overwhelms your fear and inertia to act on them.

For me, that moment was New Year’s Day 2014.

That day, the dawning of yet another year as an unsuccessful wannabe writer finally broke me.

I felt like a supreme failure; all talk. Since the age of seven I’d been saying I wanted to be an author, and yet here I was at twenty-five with nothing to show for it. Where’s your book, loser?

I had a moment where I got so angry, I just lost my shit. I grabbed an empty notebook and cut sick, ranting and raging in a stream-of-consciousness style, page after page.

Me, drunk, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014.

What emerged in those pages was that I was fed up investing all my time, money and energy into stuff that only took me further away from where I actually wanted to be in life.

So, New Year’s Day 2014 was the moment I furiously decided to burn all of that stuff down.

I renounced trying to have a good full-time job and career.

I renounced trying to earn lots of money.

I renounced academic validation.

Just now, I dug that particular notebook out of my filing cabinet. It’s a Game of Thrones notebook with an image of the Iron Throne on its cover. Among the many hectic, rage-fuelled, ink-scrawled pages that day in January 2014, I wrote:

I ain’t no good little straight A’s boy getting an office job to make everyone proud and happy.

I am a fucking artist and I am gonna sing for my supper forevermore.

I will make my life happen.

That moment was when my whole life changed, and I became a dedicated artist.

I started calling myself a writer, got working on my first manuscript, and set a goal to complete it by the end of that year.

Since I had a full-time job at the time, my only chance to achieve that goal was to use my nights and weekends. I had to sacrifice all my spare time. I used to fill my down-time with studying various qualifications and drinking and socialising with work mates, uni mates, school mates.

I sacrificed that. No more studying. No more socialising.

I only had so many hours to use per week. If I wanted to avoid being in the exact same place come January 2015, I had to actively make changes in my life.

I dedicated myself to the hustle: evenings and weekends became writing time.

Some shit I wrote on my arm in early 2014 to remind myself what I was giving up and what I really wanted. May have been drunk at the time. 😐

I didn’t miss my old pursuits. Working hard at my dream was a joyous end in and of itself. Even if I never got a book published, I felt alive and happy.

I’m sharing this because whenever someone asks me about goals and discipline as a writer, I feel I can only do so much in the way of advice.

I reckon it’s up to each individual artist to have their ‘fuck everything’ moment, where they get so mad they decide to actually do something about it.

If you’re struggling with this, I encourage you to lean into that moment and embrace it.

Not everyone is the same, of course, but it worked for me.

I spent 2014 working on my first draft, and completed that manuscript in January 2015. Finally, a new year rolled around where I felt satisfied. I wasn’t published, I had no accolades and still felt like a failure – but I was working my arse off to change it.

I was unsuccessful but trying, and that made all the difference.

I have kept this approach ever since, which has helped propel me year after year to keep chasing what I want.

I did the same in 2021, setting ten goals for the year: four writing goals and six personal life goals.

Here’s how I went:

2021 GOALS IN REVIEW

WRITING

1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.

This finally panned out in 2021. I signed a two-book deal with Text Publishing for my second novel, THE BRINK (out August 2022) and my third novel (out late 2023, probably). Big thanks to my agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary, for securing me an incredible advance that meant I could be a full-time writer – a lifelong dream come true.

On the editing front, I spent the year doing edits and the next draft is due back to my publisher at the end of January.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.

This didn’t happen. I scheduled September and October to smash a second draft, but some crap personal life stuff happened and blew this to pieces. I had a shit few months and couldn’t write anything real. I wrote a Pokémon fanfiction novella to distract myself instead.

My third novel is due to my publisher this April, so I’ll work on it in the first half of this year.

RESULT: FAIL.

3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.

This project moved forward at speed in 2021. We got funding from Screen Australia, held a couple of writers’ rooms, got the first episode script written (holy shit, it’s awesome!), and in November 2021, we won a grant from streaming service Stan and Screenwest to develop the show into a ten-episode TV series.

TV development is a long process, but the next steps during 2022 will be to seek more funding to make this actually happen. Stay tuned.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

The Invisible Boys TV series has received development funding from streaming service Stan Australia, as well as Screenwest and Screen Australia. L-R: Producer Tania Chambers OAM, Invisible Boys book cover, director Nicholas Verso.

4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.

This one worked out. My short story, Rappaccini’s Son, was published in the book HOMETOWN HAUNTS (Wakefield Press, 2021). A second piece, a short memoir titled Territory, was accepted for publication in the forthcoming book GROWING UP IN COUNTRY AUSTRALIA (Black Inc, March 2022).

I was also commissioned by WAToday to write a media article about gay conversion therapy, which was widely shared on social media and led to me fronting other press and radio opportunities to speak on the issue.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

LIFE

5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).

I managed to maintain this all year and actually exceeded it. On average per week, I did four weights sessions and two cardio sessions (footy training and footy game) – six workouts total. I pushed myself to stick to this even when my nutrition was bad or my energy levels were low, and I’m glad of that.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I failed this badly. I had a highly-disciplined first three months: by early April, I was down from 87 kg to 77.7kg, and it seemed I would achieve this. But my mental health nosedived in April, and I ate and drank heavily for months. By June, I was back at 86kg again, and by the end of December, I was still 84kg.

RESULT: FAIL.

7.Get first tattoos in 2021.

This didn’t happen either, and I’m getting mad about it. I wanna get my ink when I’m feeling good about my physique, so this goal is tied to me sorting out my nutrition. I also need money to spare for tattoos, which I currently don’t have as I’m living off advance and royalty income and need to conserve funds. Urgh.

RESULT: FAIL.

8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.

I worked hard at this. For the first three months, I trained with an amateur AFL team, ECU Jets, in addition to the Perth Hornets AFL 9s team. I’ve always wanted to give full-contact AFL a crack. I enjoyed the training, but I felt badly out of my depth in terms of skills – sometimes, embarrassingly so – and I wasn’t able to make it work. The coaches and players welcomed me even knowing I’m a gay bloke, though, and I liked that. But combined with my mental health nosedive and years of crap self-esteem around sports, it became too much. I pulled out to focus on just AFL 9s.

I did become more useful to the team, and I was really proud when the Hornets coach awarded me the trophy for Most Improved Player last month. It’s the first time in my life I’ve won a trophy for anything sports-related. I’ll never be a natural athlete, but I was chuffed to be recognised for putting in the hard work. It’s hard to suck at something, in front of other people, week after week, but still show up and keep trying. I am proud of that.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

Receiving the Perth Hornets trophy for Most Improved Player in the Spring 2021 season was a huge highlight.

9. Do at least one guitar lesson.

After I failed my 2020 goal of doing a whole term of ten guitar lessons, I thought this was a nice, low-ball goal. Lol, nup. I didn’t fit in a single guitar lesson in 2021.

RESULT: FAIL.

10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.

This was an odd goal, but I wanted to ensure I did stuff for fun. I went quad biking with mates, jumped on massive trampolines, went to concerts and went on a footy trip to Lancelin.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

Overall, I hit six out of ten goals in 2021. Not bad, not bad. I don’t stress about failed goals; they just kept me refocus on what I do and don’t want to keep trying at the following year.

My goals for 2021 look similar, but I’m simplifying down to just eight goals instead of ten. Four writing goals, four life goals:

2022 GOALS

  1. Complete the final edits for The Brink and promote its release.
  2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.
  3. Work on the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
  4. Get one piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
  5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weights, footy and cardio).
  6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 April 2022.
  7. Get first tattoos in first half of 2022.
  8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident.

The first goal is massive, because the front end of the year will be preparing The Brink for release, and August onwards will be promoting it heavily with media and events. It will be hard to fit anything extra into 2022.

Because of this, stuff like guitar and fun shit will go on the backburner for a less hectic year. This year I’d love to go quad biking, go-karting or get out on a dirt bike, but I won’t set it as a goal. I’ve also left off full-contact AFL: I’m still interested, but it’s on the backburner.

I have a couple of more personal goals, too. I’m not sure if I’ll share them later or not, but I’ll be working on these quietly in my own time this year.

I’m keen to get started on smashing my goals now. The main joy for me is not necessarily being able to write ‘success’ or ‘fail’ at the end of each year, but just enjoying the dogged gut-fire I get that makes me work at each goal, week in, week out. It’s the most fun and rewarding way I know how to live.

In that notebook from 2014, I found a quote I wrote down from Paulo Coelho that I want to share here, to finish up. Coelho says, ‘Do something instead of killing time. Because time is killing you.’ I’ve always found that quote brutally motivational. I hope you might, too.

However you plan to spend your 2022, and whatever your own goals are, here’s to a year that, hopefully, has some good surprises in store for us all.

Holden

Varuna: The Week I’ll Never Forget

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.

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My first glimpse of the Blue Mountains, from the taxi heading to Varuna. Magnificent.

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.

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Out the front of Varuna House at sunset. NB: Not my Fiat. NB2: How much could this be somewhere in Italy, though?

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.

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Deffo the most appropriate room for a homo. Spoilers: no actual bears within.

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.

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The tranquil view from my desk. Feat: oats.

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.

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On Katoomba’s main street. Is it just me or did this place just get a whole lot more STUDLY? 😉

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.

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Hard at work in the Bear Room.

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.

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Dessert at Varuna: Some kind of molten chocolate delicacy that was so rich I don’t think any of us could finish it. But man, it was incredible.

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.

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The famous Three Sisters feat. some tourist wanker. You can’t tell but I was reaching the limits of exhaustion in this photo.

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.

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Writing on the edge of a cliff at Echo Point.

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.

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Working out in the Katoomba gym. There were no other humans in there. It was fairly eerie.

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.

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A square in downtown Katoomba where I ate lunch.

***

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.

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Classic cars in the main street of Katoomba.

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.

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Two of the books I read while in the Bear Room. Camus’ “The Rebel” was not a novel, but an essay – and rather masterfully written (though I didn’t have time to read it all).

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.

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The view from Varuna’s kitchen. NB: Rum not included in the residency.

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.

 

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At Katoomba Station with Miranda Luby. NB: Not our shit on the bench, we asked some bloke to move so we could take our selfie.

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.

Holden

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I’ll never forget my week here.