How To Be Authentic When Everyone’s Watching

Holy fuck.

I can barely remember how to write a blog post. How did I used to start off? I’m sure I used to be witty. Or maybe that was just in my head; maybe I was laughing at my own jokes, like J.D. from Scrubs.

In any case, the only suitable opening I can find today is “holy fuck”. Frankly, nothing else has the brevity or blunt power to encapsulate how I feel, and what’s happened, since I last blogged.

So, back in September, I was announced as one of the shortlisted authors for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, alongside some amazing authors such as Alan Fyfe, Yuot Alaak, Zoe Deleuil, Julie Sprigg and Trish Versteegen. I was pretty damn excited about just being shortlisted.

And then on the 15th November, at a big ceremony at the Fremantle Arts Centre, I was announced as the WINNER of the 2018 Hungerford Award. I won $12,000 and a publishing contract: my debut YA novel, Invisible Boys, will be published by Fremantle Press in October 2019.

I am absolutely stoked and my full emotional response to this still hasn’t hit me, I don’t think. It is incredibly exciting and a dream come true, and the fact that I can’t come up with anything beyond cliches tells me I still haven’t really processed it.

Hungerford with Brad
With City of Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt after winning the 2018 T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

But as a result of all this enormous news, the last three months – from the initial shortlisting until now – has been one of the most exciting, hectic, surreal, chaotic and overwhelming times of my entire life.

And because of that, I haven’t written a blog post since the shortlisting was announced. This is not for lack of wanting to, but time was at a premium. About five minutes after I won the Hungerford, I had a media itinerary pressed into my hand by the marketing manager at Fremantle Press, and suddenly it was all go – press and radio interviews, contracts, event bookings, existing events to attend. Thing is, I never really factored in what would happen if I *actually* won the award, and it so happens that November/December are the busiest times of the whole year in my current day job.

So for about three weeks, my routine was:

  • Wake up at 5:30am feeling rat shit
  • Try to tackle incoming emails/social media notifications/tasks
  • Go to work for the day
  • Come home, open laptop, continue tackling inbound emails/notifications
  • Fall asleep with laptop open on my lap
  • Wake up and repeat the whole thing

I don’t think I had an iota of downtime for at least two weeks. I won’t pretend this wasn’t a really exhilarating time, though. The thrill of winning an award as prestigious as the Hungerford – and the realisation that my novel is finally going to be published – buoyed me through the hectic pace of post-award life.

(Suggestion for any future Hungerford shortlisted authors in 2020 or beyond who might stumble across this post: I recommend clearing your schedule for the whole week after the award announcement, just in case. If you win, you’ll have some breathing space around your crazy schedule. If you don’t win, you’ll have some downtime to curl up in the fetal position and take care of yourself.)

But it’s been almost an entire month now since the award announcement, and the noise and rush and overwhelm has finally settled. And better, I’m now on my third day of holidays: I have an entire glorious month off work over the summer. Right now I am sitting at an alfresco cafe in Fremantle. I’m drinking an apple juice with ice blocks in it. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky and a warm breeze tells me it’s going to be a nice hot day. I’m listening to a man across the street busking, playing blues guitar, and I feel more relaxed in this moment than I have for a very long time.

So it’s time to sit down and write how I’m feeling. Since I was a kid, writing stuff down has always been my way of processing how I think and feel; my tool for making sense of what’s happened. (I am very mature because I am totally resisting the urge to make a very crude tool joke right now.) My happiest times as a kid were sitting down on a weekend with my notebook and just being creative – drawing pictures, maps, or writing down thoughts, feelings, story ideas, or actual stories. This is one of my favourite ways of getting in touch with myself; of knowing who I am.

And I’ve commented to my boyfriend a few times this past month that I barely felt like I knew myself, which makes sense, since I wasn’t writing or blogging or doodling in a notebook. I desperately needed to write stuff down so I could comprehend what had happened, how I felt about it, and who I am now in what feels like a new era for my career and my life.

And now that I’ve given myself a few minutes to stop and think, the first thing I’ve noticed, or remembered, is that actually, there were loads of times over the past three months that I badly wanted to write a blog post. A few times I even jotted something down on my phone, thinking it would make a good post to share. But something stopped me – an invisible force that had nothing to do with my claims of being too busy (which I was) or not having enough time (which I didn’t).

So, the truth is, I actually stopped blogging for three months because I was really fucking scared.

Almost every time I thought of something I wanted to comment on or share, a thought bubbled up from within my blood – an acidic, corrosive thought:

What if you write how you are feeling, and Fremantle Press happen to read the blog post, and realise you’re sometimes sensitive/boofheaded/confident/a bit odd/a bundle of nerves/cocky/a total mess? 

That thought was like a springy, five-metre high diving board into an overly-chlorinated pool of an even more insidious thought:

If they know what I’m really like as a person, flawed and sensitive, they might decide not to publish me. 

And that little rhizome of terror took root in my psyche; like a weed choking a flower, it overpowered the cheers of support from friends and fellow writers. The fearful thoughts were actually louder than the momentous fact that the publisher had gone and shortlisted me in the first place.

So I froze for three months, and I chose to write nothing at all. I became completely paranoid that if I said one slightly dumb or embarrassing comment in a blog post, I might lose everything.

I’m not particularly proud of shying away from blogging like this, but when I reflect upon it, I would probably do it the same all over again if I had to. I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven; this is the dream and goal I’ve been working towards my whole life. Three months of dubious self-censoring was worth it even if, on the other side of receiving the award, I can see it was probably just fear talking. The people who work at my publisher are totally amazing people – I feel like I’ve joined a new family – and I feel very welcomed as both a writer and a human. I don’t have anything to worry about from that perspective.

But things have changed. Prior to the shortlisting, I felt like I was just some random toiling away in obscurity; now, I feel like people are actually watching, listening, waiting for my novel to drop.

And to be honest, I’m not used to people watching me. Nobody was watching when I fell apart trying to complete my Honours writing project in 2012. Nobody saw my quiet struggles in 2014-2016 of working on my first fantasy novel. Comparatively few people engaged with my short stories when I released them digitally in 2017.

It was easy to be authentic in those eras, because nobody knew who I was and even when they did, few people cared.

The post-Hungerford world feels different. I have to consider the other partners in my publishing career – such as my agent and my publisher. And every now and then I think about the fact that fellow authors, some much more established and esteemed than me, also follow me on social media, and thus might see my blog posts, and thus might judge me for how I write and talk and feel.

When I started thinking about this last week, I had the horrible thought that I was now going to have to be more cautious in what I write. And that thought snowballed. Shit, I’m going to have to censor myself. I should probably try to come across positive all the time, especially since I’m getting published so I should just try to be permanently happy and grateful and never say anything dark or negative again. I shouldn’t talk about how I feel as frankly as I used to. I shouldn’t blog in the unfettered, authentic way I used to. What if people think I’m a tool? What if they think I’m too soft, too annoying, too cocky? Or what if they just want me to shut the hell up since I’ve won the Hungerford? What if everyone’s already sick of me?  

This led to a truly abysmal weekend. I felt like I was suffocating; like I couldn’t be myself anymore. It was painfully similar to how I felt when I was younger and in the closet: thinking that how I am is inherently not okay; that I needed to put on some kind of front to be accepted by the people around me. It really affected me, and eventually, on Sunday, the bough broke. My anxiety skyrocketed, and I felt physically and emotionally sick. The option of shutting up, or of sanitising my online presence to present a more polished “published author” vibe from now on, loomed over me – a quiet, claustrophobic death of expression.

A death of my authentic self in the place of a palatable, saleable version of Holden.

While I was in this headspace, a lyric from one of my favourite Cranberries songs, “Free to Decide”, kept spiralling to the top of my consciousness:

It’s not worth anything more than this at all
I’ll live as I choose, or I will not live at all

I have always loved this song and this lyric, but Dolores O’Riordan’s words meant something new to me on Sunday. I realised in that moment that a life without free expression is not a life I want to lead. If self-censorship were ever the price of my career, the career simply wouldn’t be worth it.

And so I decided, on Sunday afternoon, that I won’t pay that price.

And as soon as I made that decision, my anxiety ebbed back to low tide. I felt immediately human again; and I felt like me again. My three-month-long self-imposed moratorium on expression had been shattered and I decided never to go back there. That’s no way to start a career as a novelist, and no way to live any kind of meaningful life.

The reality is, I can’t breathe if I can’t express myself freely. I’m pretty sure the free expression is what actually makes my writing worth anything, anyway. I am bolder in my writing than I am anywhere else, and that bravery occasionally leads to a good story or a good novel or a good blog post. Other times it doesn’t, but you win some, you lose some.

What matters to me as a writer and a man is that I am free to say what I want to say. When I am free and unencumbered, I feel like myself.

So, on Sunday night, I decided to commit myself to being as authentic and honest as I always have been. I value these qualities, in my writing and in my life, over almost all others. I don’t want to be seen as singularly positive and happy, nor singularly angry or anxious or depressed. I want to make space for all emotions. I want to be okay with them, not just as they happen, but in the sharing and expressing of them, if I so choose.

I am sometimes light and sometimes dark; both parts exist within me, within all of us, and I am going to allow myself to express these parts of myself as they come up.

Maybe this isn’t normal once people are watching and expecting certain things of my writing, but I don’t care. It feels right to me to be unfettered. I can’t live any other way.

This mindset feels like a good way to tackle the adventure that’s just over the horizon. 2019 is going to be an incredible year. The Invisible Boys era is about to begin, and I can’t wait to share all of it with you – the ups and also the downs, honestly and openly – over the year to come.

Here’s to a big year of triumphs and fuck-ups and everything in between.

Holden