Just a Total Identity Crisis, Nothing to See Here …

I’m not messing around here: Who am I?

Or, more importantly, who do I think I am?

I have to admit I usually don’t bother myself with questions like this. Partly because I tend to think of them as pseudo-philosophical bollocks: there’s no point reflecting on who you are; just be. Partly because it is a super cliché artist question and I view it with some level of disdain (I have been told I am just a tad judgmental …). And partly because I can only hear “Who am I?” asked in a Derek Zoolander voice, and that thought makes the teenage boy inside me – who adulthood has never quite managed to kill off – guffaw like a boofhead.

But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been dwelling pretty extensively on this question and others. Who is Holden Sheppard? What am I all about? Why do I exist? Why do I write? What do I want?

zoolander pic
Could I be the best actor-slash-model, and not the other way around?

It all started innocently enough: I attended a guest lecture by an advertising expert who talked about the importance of personal branding. I was intrigued and made some vague notes, but didn’t allocate much time to actually coming up with an answer.

A few weeks later, my quest for personal development brought me to a workshop at the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre in Joondalup. The topic was Personal Branding, Marketing and Social Media for Authors, facilitated by a truly brilliant consumer psychologist and author, Glennys Marsdon. I don’t use the word “brilliant” lightly here: Glennys is a superstar and laser-sharp, and I could not recommend her advice more highly if you are an author at any stage of your journey.

I never knew a simple three-hour workshop could have such an impact on me.

Glennys’ workshop – both during and after – made me reflect deeply, and at length, about who I am and who I want to be. And finding a concrete, clear sense of identity was actually quite difficult.

Holden Sheppard - Sep 2017 head shot
My current head shot. Maybe good for a professional – but too squeaky-clean for an author?

I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks now; this post, in fact, has been sitting as a draft for weeks because I couldn’t quite get my head around it.

I’ve been analysing myself, maybe a little too harshly, and essentially trying to work out why this is such a difficult task for me. And I think I’ve zeroed in on the crux: I have a lifelong tendency to be highly adaptable to my environment. My (very human) instincts as a kid and even as a grown man have been to adapt, fit in, be normal, as I found myself in each new environment.

For instance, I was a bookish kid and I felt really isolated in a lot of ways during high school. There was an external persona that learned how to (barely) survive in peer groups at high school; while the more bookish, creative, outspoken side of me learned to flourish only in online forums among fellow writers and readers and gamers.

zorro the pumpkin 2005
Even in high school, I was a bit of a superstar, AKA weirdo.

This model of behaviour adaptation has chased me through life. At uni, I would drink coffee and talk about literature and theory and culture and feelings with my uni mates – during the day. At night I’d hang out with a different set of mates, drinking VB from long necks and playing pool and generally being bogans.

When I worked as a labourer and mini-excavator operator, I talked differently – every second word was “fuck” or “cunt”; when I went to a uni environment, my lecturers said they couldn’t understand me when I spoke, and so again I learned to adapt, speaking as clearly and professionally as I could.

The point I’m making is that I have successively adapted from the expectations of one setting to another, over and over, modifying my behaviour and personality to some extent each time. To some degree, this is quite normal and is probably a form of “code-switching”; it has also probably been the vehicle of my ability to succeed in a range of different sectors and environments.

The downside is that I have worked so hard to ensure I am meeting, exceeding and pleasing the expectations of external environments and people that my ability to meet, exceed and please my own sense of identity has atrophied over time.

labourer 2007
Sample dialogue from when I was a labourer: “All youse cunts are fucked, ay.”

When Glennys asked me to think about how Holden Sheppard, the author, was different to me as a person, I couldn’t find an answer. I realise, now, that is because there isn’t really a distinguishable difference. The way I present myself as an author is reflective of how I present myself as a person who works for a university.

Professional. Inoffensive. Clean. Even – shudder – kind of wholesome at times.

But does any of this let me express who I actually feel I am inside? The version of me that expresses itself in my personal life, in my self-expression, in my written expression? Is it what I’m really like in person, or who I want to be? Is it in line with my “personal brand” – or even with my actual, authentic personality?

Not at all.

So, my task is clear, and it’s no small feat. I need to dig around for a while and work out exactly who I think I am. More importantly, who do I want to be? What do I value? What’s important to me? This is actually very liberating, because so far I have been operating on the assumption that to be liked means I need to be neutral, professional and inoffensive – but these terms are nothing like how I would actually describe myself.

thug life 2013
Maybe this has been the real me this whole time?

I suppose you could say I’ve been putting on a particular front, or persona, to protect myself – and to avoid letting too much real stuff shine through.

 

That’s going to change.

I don’t have the answers just yet, but, as Cat Stevens once sang, I’m now on the road to find out.

I’m looking forward to the ride.

Holden

 

 

 

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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

My Whole Life is Thunder!

Everyone knows musicians and actors live for the spotlight and can sometimes tend to the narcissistic end of the spectrum. As Lady Gaga sang back in 2013, musicians “live for the applause”. 30 Rock‘s Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), an actress on the show-within-the-show, gave perhaps the best response when someone suggested they had stolen her thunder, dramatically screaming, “My whole life is thunder!”

Maybe a lesser known fact is that us writers also crave the limelight. Even the most introverted among us desire some level of attention: the quest for publication alone is admission of a desire for external validation. If we did not want a little thunder, we would be quite content to write endless novels on our laptops and leave them there until the beginning of the digital dark age.

But we want publication because like Gaga and Maroney, we have some level of fame whore within us. We create stories and worlds, and it’s a nice feeling when someone who isn’t us reads them and goes, “Oh, that’s so cool.”

I don’t think it’s super cool to admit we like the attention. Especially in Australia, where such an admission is going to get you chopped down (see: Tall Poppy Syndrome). But to some extent, it’s the truth for every artist, no matter how humble they try to appear. I’m not the only writer who likes the attention, surely?

I got to enjoy the view of my first few streamers of electricity this week. Firstly, I spotted my story The Scroll of Isidor charting on the Barnes and Noble bestselling fantasy short stories list (it started at #45, crept up to #31, and has now slid back to #33). That was a cool feeling, because it quantified the success of this story in an understandable way. I’ve been tracking the sales for the e-book, but it’s hard to know how they stack up compared to others in the field; a chart eliminates that query. It’s nice to enjoy a small modicum of success. As I like to think of it, it’s a taste of things to come.

A second burst of lightning came when I was profiled for the first time as an author. After we crossed paths on Goodreads, book blogger Mercedes Fox interviewed me this week for her website.

I had heaps of fun talking about my work as a writer and what drives me. The hardest question was about my favourite fictional character. I ended up choosing Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video game series, but it was a tough call. I tend to like intelligent, witty, dry-humoured alpha male characters, and there actually aren’t that many well-crafted ones out there. Drake, however, is a sick cunt. If I could be anyone fictional, I think I’d be him. When I was a kid, I liked Tintin a lot, but in terms of being a 3D character, he’s a bit lacking and rather milquetoast. Drake is like a more buff, more hardcore, more awesome version of Tintin, but more likeable than Indiana Jones.

We also talked about me getting carried away writing sex scenes (a challenge since I write YA!) and having an existential meltdown in 2014 and how that turned my life around and made me a harder worker.

You can check out the full interview here.

So this was a big week, and like any slightly self-obsessed artist, I did enjoy the burst of attention. But now I’m hanging to crawl back into my hermit shell for some weekend downtime. And by downtime, I probably mean working on my current WIP. And possibly binge-watching Riverdale, because I was a huge Archie Comics geek growing up.

Wishing you guys an ace weekend: read and write well, and remember, like Jenna Maroney, YOUR WHOLE LIFE IS THUNDER!

Holden