A Bad Day at Work vs A Bad Day at Dream

Man, it’s a hell of a lot of work to chase an artistic dream.

A lot of hard, tiring, unpaid work, to be precise.

And, to be really honest, as much as you’ll usually hear me beaming about how much the pursuit of my dream animates me – and it does – some days are better than others.

There are days where the chase is pure elation, and each microscopic win feels like running across the finish line of a marathon: you finish a chapter, you get an unexpected book review, a blog comment makes you smile, or a tweet goes mildly viral.

And then there are days where everything is a giant mess of shit.

You spend hours fiddling with formatting a table of contents, for instance. Or you are stuck copy-editing (or worse, proofreading) a short story before you submit it to prizes or journals. You tweet and nobody retweets it; you post on Facebook and nobody likes it; you blog and it is met with resounding indifference (you can only imagine the precipice my mood rests upon in writing this very post …).

Unlike a day job, you don’t get a paycheck at the end of a bad day as an artist. You just have a really shitty day. In fact, in economic terms, you theoretically lost money, because of the opportunity cost of spending two or three or ten hours working on your fledgling artistic career.

I’ve had a run of great writing days recently, as I plough through my second novel for Camp NaNoWriMo. My project is currently sitting at about 37,000 words (out of a goal of 50,000), so I’m closing in on my target.

But despite that success, there have also been a couple of really frustrating days in the past week where everything seemed to go wrong at once. Nothing catastrophic, just some medium-grade SNAFUs.

Today was one of them: a head-desk, “why me?” kind of day. I think I thought I was further ahead in my career than I really was, in some ways, and that crashed down all around me. I’m still torn between wanting to sweep everything off my desk in a melodramatic writery tantrum and wanting to curl up into the fetal position and rock myself to sleep.

I am also considering the sage counsel of the little girl from the Old El Paso ad: “Why not both?”

But, of all things, something that happened at work yesterday made me feel better about the whole mess.

Like a lot of writers/dreamers, I have a range of casual jobs to keep my head above water and my arse off the street corner, so to speak. Some of my jobs are more highly paid than others – and one of them, in particular, is now a couple of grades lower than I’m worth, so I pitched to my boss that I ought to have my position promoted.

My pitch was declined. I felt deflated and considerably undervalued, but I went about my day after that.

But when I thought about these crappy last couple of days, I realised something.

While I felt undervalued in my day job, where I am paid decently, I didn’t feel undervalued as a writer.

This is even though I am paid nothing.

If I look at the last month of preparing my new e-book, THE BLACK FLOWER, for publication, I was paid exactly $0.00 for every hour I spent writing, editing, proofing, formatting, blogging, marketing, submitting, designing, and so on. And there were many, many hours.

But even when everything seems to go wrong, not one second of this feels like a waste of my time, because every second of this journey makes me feel alive. Every moment spent wading through molasses towards my dream is a moment in which I am aligned with my personal quest in this life.

I am always energised by it, and never drained, despite the unpaid element to this journey. The bad days never deter me. They can’t.

Reflecting on this made me feel better, because I now realise a day of unpaid writing is more valuable than a paid day of work.

Tonight, I will make my choice between a raging tantrum or cocooning myself in a blanket.

And tomorrow, I will pick myself up, dust myself off, listen to some Alanis Morissette and get back on the horse.

I am not there yet.

The road ahead is still very long.

Holden

 

So, at what point can you call yourself a Writer?

In the last year or so I’ve encountered so many writers at different stages of their journeys. Some of them have been published novelists sharing their wisdom at events or in webinars (or, sometimes, in Tweets). Others, like me, are submitting short stories to journals or working on their first or second novels, and making their first foray into the sharkly world of agents and editors. Many authors I meet on Twitter and through Camp NaNoWriMo, are indie authors, or describe themselves as aspiring authors. And still others are bloggers or freelancers, sharing their life experience with the cybersphere.

On some level, we are all the same: artists and creators grappling with words and our own fears to craft something amazing, painful and beautiful and bring it into the world.

And yet, sometimes it feels like we are worlds apart from one another – especially, I think, those of us who haven’t yet had our first full-length work published (like me).

So, with so many stages and forms of this authory career, I’ve been thinking a lot about at what point we feel comfortable actually calling ourselves “writers” – and it’s quite a telling point to ponder.

Business man and woman shaking hands.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m a writer. No further questions kthxbye.”

Being a writer is a strange identity to occupy. We are not like a boy having a father figure or other male role model to look up to as he becomes a man. We are not like a Catholic going to church and learning the norms and customs from the other parishioners around us. We may share blood with our parents, but we are rarely cut from the same cultural fabric: very few of us would be descended from acclaimed writers (and those who are should count their blessings in terms of the networks that opens up for them!).

No: us weird little writers tend to incubate in obscurity and isolation through our childhood, until adolescence spits us out and we realise we can’t survive without writing.

But when are we allowed to actually become a writer? Imagine meeting someone for the first time (maybe at a conference or event or dinner party) and, when they ask you what you do, you respond with, “I am a writer.”

At what point in your writing career does that become kosher? Or believable?

It’s a slippery concept, because success as a writer was traditionally – and still is – so inextricably (and agonisingly) tied to having a full-length book published by a traditional publishing house.

Business People At The Meeting
You seem nice. Please, just take another free quiche and leave me the hell alone so I can dwell on my raging insecurities.

As a hangover from this – or, perhaps, as a mirror of our Western drive for achievement and validation – many writers do not publicly identify as such until they have a book published.

Many of us – especially the sensies among our ranks – experience the imposter syndrome. We really do fear that if we call ourselves writers, the logical next question from a well-meaning inquirer will do to us what a lawnmower does to a blade of grass:

“Oh, you’re a writer. So, what have you written?”

PANIC STATIONS!

Our fledgling writer turns heel and foots it out of dodge, with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting in his ears.

There is nothing more gut-wrenchingly, colon-emptyingly awkward and terrifying as calling yourself a writer and then mumbling a response to THAT QUESTION.

“Oh, nothing published yet,” you say, eyes down, desperate to get the heat off you.

the cool s
Remember these from Year 5?

All you want in that moment is for the person you’re talking to to go the hell back to the buffet table and freeload on some more spinach and feta quiches.

Many will find a way around this, and call themselves “aspiring writers”, but I actually feel quite passionately that this term is a misnomer. In fact, I actively encourage my students and writer friends not to call themselves this.

In my logic, an “aspiring writer” is someone who wants to write. You SHOULD call yourself an aspiring writer if you dream of one day writing an amazing novel, but you don’t know where to start, and you haven’t tried to write it yet, and it’s been seven years and all you have is a notebook with doodles of that cool stone S everyone used to draw in like Year 5.

HOWEVER.

If:

  • you are trying to write your first novel and have notebooks and MS word documents and Scrivener files full of first pages and first chapters; OR
  • you are practising writing short stories, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, scripts, whatever …

Then I would recommend you call yourself the dreaded Writer with a capital W.

Because despite the earthquakes of self-doubt that fracture your little writer heart every few weeks, or days, or hours, you are physically writing.

You are trying.

You are on your way and you are putting in all the blood, sweat and tears your caffeine-dehydrated body can afford to spare.

You are a writer.

writer not sane
Pretty much …

It does not matter one iota that nobody big and powerful and serious and acclaimed has yet recognised your genius, nor whether they have read your stuff, called it untalented tripe and kicked you twice in the kidney, leaving you in the gutter to die an artist’s death.

You are still a writer.

What defines us is our action and our spirit.

Our identity as writers is not tied to the quality of our work (how else would bad writers exist?) nor our publication status.

Personally, I thought of myself as a writer and was writing on and off from the age of seven, but I never dared to call myself one in public until my first short story was picked up and published in a literary journal when I was 20.

Until then, it seemed like Narcissus-level hubris to take on the moniker shared by King, Rowling, Tolkien and others.

But you know what? It still feels like that. Getting one short story published didn’t change that. Two didn’t. A bunch of journalistic stuff didn’t change it either.

And a lot of authors will testify that even getting one or two novels published still doesn’t change the sense that you’re not quite good enough yet.

Every time you introduce yourself as a writer, you’re waiting for Frau Farbissina to burst out from behind the bain maries at the networking dinner and scream, “LIES! ALL LIES!”

But really, I should have called myself a writer earlier, because (1) I have the spirit of whatever the fuck it is that makes us all creative and slightly cuckoo bubbling through my blood, and (2) I was writing actively, which satisfies my main criterion.

frau
When you have the audacity to introduce yourself as a writer.

I should have called myself a writer when I penned my little short story homage to Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” in my first year of uni.

I should have called myself a writer when I started writing my Pokemon fanfiction in 2001.

I should have called myself a writer when I was seven and writing about co-ed twelve year olds falling off Cornwall cliffs.

I do call myself a writer nowadays. In fact, I’ve been trying to consciously make myself say “writer” instead of my day jobs when people ask me what I do. It’s still a challenge in resolve, but I’m starting to actually do it.

You should, too.

If you write, call yourself a writer and cast aside the “aspiring writer” exercise in nervous hedging. You do not have to have anything published, or even finished, to be a real writer. You can survive telling a stranger that you aren’t yet published.

Just start writing, and carry yourself with the confidence of knowing you are a writer, just like Rowling. Sure, we may be less famous and poorer and less masterful, but we are still undeniably part of the same club. It’s just that we don’t have seats at the table yet.

You have to take yourself seriously as a writer to become a serious writer. And nobody else will ever take you seriously as a writer if you don’t.

Holden

Turning 29: A Writer Begins the Year of His Saturn Return

It was my birthday on Monday – and not just any birthday.

This was my 29th birthday: the much-feared last year of the twenties, or, in popular astrological terms, the year of my Saturn Return.

What on earth is the Return of Saturn?

For starters, it’s a bangin’ 2000 album by pop-rock band No Doubt. Incidentally, I listen to a track off that album every single year on my birthday – one of my weirder rituals. The song is called Six Feet Under and the chorus goes like this:

Today is my birthday and I get one every year

And someday, hard to believe but I’ll be buried six feet underground

Yep, the lyrics are kind of morbid but the song is a fizzy, rocky new-wave track and I just love it. I suppose I get a kick out of recognising how fleeting life is, and a birthday is probably a better time than most to acknowledge that. We are only on this planet very briefly, so I try to enjoy it as much as I can.

And the No Doubt example leads me to my point, really. Lead singer and songwriter Gwen Stefani wrote most of the album during her Saturn Return in the late 90s – hence the album title.

An astrological concept, a Saturn Return describes the return of the planet Saturn to the same celestial location it was in when a person was born. This usually takes about 29.5 years, so the year between 29 and 30 is considered the year of your Saturn Return, though, as the tale goes, the planet’s influence is felt from the ages of about 27-31.

The idea is that a Saturn Return signifies a time of self-evaluation and transition into a different life stage each time it occurs. At the first Saturn Return at 29, our youth ends and we enter adulthood. At 58, we enter maturity, and for those who make it to 87, the wisdom of old age awaits.

Now, for the record, no, I do not believe in horoscopes or any of that. In fact, the below meme best illustrates my beliefs regarding astrology.

horoscope-for-the-week-stars-and-planets-will-not-affect-your-life-in-any-way

That said, there is something curious and fascinating about the concept of the Saturn Return and how people apply it psychologically as a stage of development. Maybe it’s the story aspect of it that I like. Realistically, that’s what astrology is: take away the fact that it’s not scientific, and it’s really a form of storying our own existence and attempting to divine meaning from what surrounds us.

And storying our existence is fascinating to me – hence my choice to become a fiction writer and not an astronomer (which I once wanted to do).

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Saturn Return this week: about how I have now turned 29 and how, for the last couple of years, my life has shifted me quite dramatically in the direction I want to go in.

You see, despite always knowing I wanted to be a writer (since I was seven), I knew from a young age that this was not going to be an easy path.

Despite my desire to be a published author, there have been many times when I was faced with some negative attitudes, or, more often, when I panicked and didn’t back myself.

At 17, I chose a science degree as my top preference because I didn’t think I would be taken seriously if I studied writing. Thankfully, my mother advised me to do what I really wanted to do, whatever that was. I reflected, and changed my course preference to a Bachelor of Arts. Writing was all I wanted.

At 18, a lot of people – including a lot of so-called friends – looked down on me for pursuing my dream and studying writing. They saw writing as a low form of career, unlike law, engineering, medicine, business, or science. Some of them – several times – implied to my face that I was dumb, which was really quite silly as I’d won several academic awards for being among the brightest in the state and they were all B students. Maybe it was part jealousy. I don’t know for sure. Thankfully, social pressure has never affected me as much as my own fears. These attitudes galvanised me to keep going, because I saw these people as joyless and nasty and quite pitiable for shitting on the life of someone who dared to dream – and I never wanted to give up on dreaming and become one of them.

At 19, I wanted to drop out of uni after my first year because I didn’t feel like I fit in, and also because I was depressed. I decided to become a labourer and move back to Geraldton and just write in my spare time (ha! as if!). Thankfully, after three months labouring over the summer, I had an idea for a story and went back to uni to write it (it became “A Man”, which was published when I was 20).

At 21, I lost all confidence in myself when I graduated from uni, because I didn’t think I would be able to find a steady job as an Arts grad. I panicked and got a job in a bank for a year.

At 22, I quit the bank and did my Honours in creative writing, but then at 24, I finished my thesis and freaked out again, and went to work full time for two years in a senior admin role.

While I’ve never stopped believing in my dream, fear has sometimes made me jam the brakes on for a year or two at a time. At those shaky times, I’ve been so scared of failing at being a writer that I never really gave it a proper go.

It wasn’t until the year I turned 26 that I had an epic “I don’t give a fuck” moment – and I came out of that year losing a lot of illusions.

I decided to give up financial security, academic validation and societal approval.

I decided to just do the thing I was put on this planet for: be a writer, and do it as well as I possibly could.

So, at 27 – the age the influence of Saturn is supposed to begin – things began to pick up pace in my writing career: I got another publication, and a grant, and a mentorship.

When I was 28, the part-time job I had was taken away from me through a workplace restructure. It was a horrible time – months of anxiety and stress and uncertainty – but this time, unlike basically every time before that, I didn’t freak out.

At least, I didn’t freak out in the same way, because this time I didn’t give up on my writing.

Rather, I saw the loss of my job as a good omen: that it was time for me to put even more of my time and energy into my writing.

And so, I did.

I finally put my work out into the world, and I’ve been stoked with the response from the public.

Now at 29, I am investing more and more of my time, energy and even my own (scraps) of money into my writing career.

I have finally learned to back myself: I have said no to several day jobs in the past year, because I don’t want to lose sight of achieving my writing goals.

I have finally learned to structure my week to ensure I actually have hours put aside for both writing admin (marketing, website maintenance, editing, publishing, blogging) and writing creation (actually putting the arse in the chair and writing words).

Most importantly, I have finally learned how to operate my writing career with a foot on the accelerator – something I have never mastered previously. It is an exhilarating feeling to actually be a working writer.

Saturn’s return is supposed to push us into the role we are supposed to occupy in our adult lives: in my case, this means becoming a career author.

I enjoyed my youth, but for all its exuberance, it also came with a cacophony of fear and self-doubt that, at 29, I feel I have pushed through.

And it’s going to get better and more exciting from here. Not because a planet is hurtling into the same spot it was at back in 1988, but because I’m going to take action and make it better.

I know. I’m kind of intense.

But I don’t care anymore.

I won’t stop until my ambition is a reality – and nothing can deter me from this path.

Onwards and upwards.

Holden

Guys! I’ve been profiled on The Dreamers Blog! :O

Hey guys,

It’s such an awesome feeling being profiled for someone else’s website – especially when the questions are all about having big dreams and what it takes to follow them.

Today, writer and blogger Douglas Geller has profiled me for his Dreamers Blog. He interviews people from a range of disciplines – writers, artists, MMA fighters, you name it – and asks them how they keep their dream alive and stay motivated.

In our chat, I talk about how my parents compared me to a robot from an 80s sci-fi movie (really), why I want to live life like an early 90s Jewel, and I make a dubious Bed, Bath and Beyond analogy about my writing.

Check out the full profile here, and don’t forget to give Doug’s pages a like!

Cheers,

Holden