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

Where Do Opportunities Come From?

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the fear of missing out on a golden opportunity.

Last week, a golden opportunity came to me and I took it. I was invited to write a new article for the launch of Network Ten’s news website, Ten Daily.

I think it’s so interesting how opportunities can crop up in the most unexpected of ways, and when I look back at this one, it’s quite curious in terms of how it came about. If you have ever seen the “Lucky Penny” episode of How I Met Your Mother, you might have an idea what I mean by this: it can be so interesting to trace an outcome back to its very origins, especially when those origins seem completely disparate.

In other words – sometimes life presents us with amazing opportunities – but where do they actually come from?

Bear with me a moment. I swear I’m going somewhere with this.

In this case, I can trace this opportunity back to the day job I had taken on a few years back. I was working in a relatively senior community engagement position for a university, and as part of this role I was on a few media mailing lists to keep abreast of current trends in the higher education sector (I know … who the hell is this guy? I swear I’m not a boring person!).

Anyway, about a year ago, I spotted that The Conversation was looking for articles with an academic bent about the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. I knew this opportunity wasn’t for me for two reasons. Firstly, although I’m a sessional academic for a university, I don’t have my PhD and I don’t engage in a lot of research – nor is it something that stimulates me a lot – so I knew the tone and approach of such an article just wouldn’t be for me. Secondly, I am a massive Harry Potter fanboy, and the thought of taking a detached academic view of something I love was just unpalatable to me. So, I never looked further into that particular opportunity.

But about a month later, right on the eve of the Harry Potter 20th anniversary, I read a couple of articles on the web about why that fandom has connected so much with readers. I felt like none of the articles were getting to the key point – which, in my view, was JK Rowling’s exceptional worldbuilding. So I wrote an article for my blog late that night and into the morning, then edited it and went to post it when a thought struck me.

The thought was: hey, this article isn’t that bad. In fact, I reckon someone might even publish it.

So, I subbed it around to a few news websites and went to bed.

I woke up to an email from an editor at the Huffington Post saying he wanted to run the article. It just happened to be my 29th birthday, so it was a very nice birthday present. My little Harry Potter article was published later that day.

A couple of months later, Australia was embroiled in the saga surrounding the same-sex marriage plebiscite. After a week of anger and hurt, I penned an article about the vote and sent it straight to the editor at HuffPost. To my delight, that article was accepted, too, and it went viral nationally. It was a thrilling moment to have my article briefly become part of the national conversation, and I was contacted by strangers from across the country with mostly (though not all) positive feedback.

ten daily splash
My article for Ten Daily – always a cool feeling to be lead story on a news website, however briefly.

Many months later, the editor in question started a new role at Network Ten’s news website, Ten Daily. He remembered my article about the SSM vote and contacted me to see if I might be interested in writing a piece for their launch. I accepted. That piece – titled “How My Life Has Changed Since Australia Voted YES” – was published last week on Ten Daily. It was also the first piece of commissioned journalism I have written, which was a nice feeling, and it seemed to get a good response online.

Okay, so where the hell am I going with this?

Well, sometimes as an author we can get pissed off and frustrated with how much time we spend in our day jobs. It’s burned, wasted time; time we spend toiling away so we can eat and pay the rent rather than work on the writing projects we are passionate about.

But, applying the Lucky Penny theory from How I Met Your Mother, I actually kind of owe this latest opportunity to my day job.

I would never have been asked to write for Ten Daily if I hadn’t written the same-sex marriage article for HuffPost.

I would never have sent the same-sex marriage article to HuffPost if they hadn’t already published my Harry Potter article.

And I would never have written the Harry Potter article if I hadn’t glimpsed an email which came about as part of my job.

The point is: all this stuff happened for a reason, in a roundabout way. Toiling away in my day job eventually led me to an opportunity in my writing career.

But at the time, I never knew any of this. I thought I was stuck in a rut and I thought I was wasting my time. It’s only with the power of hindsight, several years later, that I can reflect and see that, actually, if it weren’t for that particular time in my life, I would never have found my way here to this latest opportunity.

Call it fate, or the universe, or just a lucky penny, but I think we should place more trust in ourselves and the twists and turns of our lives. As long as we are true to ourselves and don’t give up pursuing our dreams, things tend to work out the way they are supposed to.

Opportunities will always find a way to present themselves. It is up to us, as travellers and dreamers and doers, to find a way to recognise them when they do, and seize them.

You never know where they might lead.

Holden

Letting Go: There is No ‘One Chance’

If there’s one thing I’m really bad at, it’s letting go.

I tend to tackle a difficult situation head on and go with the Hulk Smash, bull terrier kind of approach first. I try to call this my ‘assertive’ approach and I can usually avoid going anywhere near ‘aggressive’, even when I maybe kinda want to smash someone’s skull in, just a teeny bit (it would be for their own good, I swear …).

If and when that fails, I will possibly fall silent and let my failure to resolve an issue through direct action fester and haunt me for the rest of my days.

But I very rarely shrug my shoulders and go, “Well, ya know what? It didn’t work. Life goes on. Let’s see what’s on TV.”

I think letting go is actually an important life skill, and it’s something I need to work on more. I don’t have the solution to this yet, although I suspect it isn’t found by listening to that goddamn song from Frozen. (Sorry, parents … I bet you only just got that shit outta your head a few months ago. I recommend listening to Rebecca Black’s Friday to distract yourself … trust me …)

idina-menzel-let-it-go-58169dfd5f9b581c0b6e46ef
No! NOOOOOOOOO! Get away from me, wickedly talented Adele Dazeem!

The reason I bring this up is that I had to force myself to let go of something recently, and it’s still got me thinking about why it was so hard to do.

I’m not talking about something particularly deep or meaningful here: I find that stuff nigh on impossible to let go of, despite my best efforts.

This was actually something writing-related. There was a call for submissions from a particular publication, and what they were seeking seemed like a golden opportunity for an emerging YA author like myself.

In fact, I was so convinced that it was going to be the right fit for me, I kept the damn thing in my calendar until super close to the deadline, when I finally forced myself to give up on it.

I had to give up and let it go, because I actually didn’t have anything written that matched the criteria they were looking for.

Most people would probably go, “Oh well. I’ll try next time.”

samuel-beckett-playwright-go-on-failing-go-on-only-next-time-try-to
Beckett knows what’s up.

Not me. I was so doggedly determined that I would find a way to churn out a suitable piece of writing that I self-flagellated for weeks. There had to be a way, I told myself. I wanted to wring the creative juices out of my squishy grey brain. Come on! Produce something amazing, brain! Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!

And there it was. Suddenly, I understood why I drive myself so hard with these kinds of things.

Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!

This is what I’m scared of as a writer. This is why it’s hard to let go of opportunities; this is why I have a word document stacked with calls for submissions I want to submit to and simply never will; this is why every internet browser on my phone or laptop has 34293235 tabs open, because I’m trying to remember every call for submissions I’ve ever seen.

I’m scared the opportunity I pass up will be ‘the one’. The one opportunity that somehow makes everything change. The one that puts me on the map, gets me more noticed, makes a publisher slide her wheely office chair over to her shiny desk phone, dial my agent’s number and go, ‘Heyyyy, how would Holden like a ten-book deal for a million billion trillion bucks?’

*cough* Publishers: I am totally open to this and if you think it would be a neat idea to invest a million bucks in me just to see what happens (could be a fun experiment, right?), I am sure my agent would love to hear from you. *cough*

Ultimately, I’m scared of passing up an opportunity because there is a pervasive myth, with a kernel of truth to it, that floats around all creative people like a cruel mist. The myth is of the discovery of the artist. The big break. The thing that made everything change overnight.

We’ve all heard the stories of actors and musicians who got their big break in the most unlikely of ways. Writing is a little different – sometimes extremely different – but some of those “big break” stories still echo through our collective consciousness.

Matthew Reilly’s chance encounter with a Pan Macmillan publisher which took him from self-published nobody to multi-million selling blockbuster author.

Stephen King throwing the draft of Carrie in the bin, only to have his wife fish it out and convince him to keep going: it became his first published novel and made him the biggest author on the planet.

And don’t even get me started on J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury.

Contest-cover-2
Matthew Reilly: from self-published nobody to multi-millionaire bestseller.

The point is, most of us know that finding long-term success as an author depends on two things: talent and luck. The fear is that even the most eloquent, brilliant author in history might languish in eternal obscurity if he never jags the right editor at the right publishing house who would have championed his work. So what hope do the rest of us have?

But I’ve decided it’s not healthy to fixate on every opportunity as being so desperately make-or-break.

Firstly, because if I get off my neurotic writer hamster wheel for two seconds, I realise it’s not realistic. None of these submissions are going to be career make-or-break moments.

Secondly, it simply isn’t true that there is only one chance to get this right.

We know about the big breaks of Matthew Reilly and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, but it’s false to assume that their careers would never have happened if those exact moments of luck hadn’t happened.

In fact, I’m quite certain they would have had amazing careers nonetheless, because, as with all writers, writing is in their blood. If Contest hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, Matthew Reilly would have kept writing: in fact, he was already working on his second novel. Likewise, Stephen King would have written something different. J.K. Rowling would have kept querying Harry Potter to other publishers, or started work a lot earlier on The Casual Vacancy, perhaps.

And because writing is in their blood, they would have kept writing, and kept querying, and kept trying until they finally did get their big break. The success equation is not just talent plus luck. It is talent plus luck … plus resilience.

Almost every published author has a similar tale: a barrage of rejections, twists and turns until, finally, against all odds, they got their first book published. And then the whole cycle probably repeated again for book number two. It’s not an easy career for any of us, published or otherwise.

The point is this: there is no “one chance”, taken or missed, that determines our fate. It is our willingness to be dogged, and resilient, and continue to pursue our dreams in the face of rejection and naysayers, that increases the odds of our success exponentially.

We are more than one story, one call for submissions, one novel, one series, or one lead character. We are writers. We have whole universes nesting in the starry recesses of our subconscious minds. The possibilities are endless, and our entire careers and fates do not rest on one single missed opportunity or failed idea.

So, I was a big boy and I let go of that particular call for submissions. That particular opportunity wasn’t the path the universe has in store for me. So be it. And guess what? The deadline passed, and I was alive after it had. Bully for me.

Moving forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to get less wound-up about individual opportunities. What has buoyed me this far in my career will get me through the rest of it – and that isn’t any single chance encounter: it is resilience.

Holden

What I Learned From Being Broke, Overseas and Alone

In June 2006, I turned eighteen. A week later, I hopped on a plane and flew to Europe to go backpacking alone for four months.

It was a dream I’d worked towards for four years. When I was fourteen, I got my first job as a storeman (though they called us “floor boys”) at a supermarket in Geraldton. I earned something like six bucks an hour and every penny I saved went into the Eurotrip fund. Since I was a teenager living at home, I think my main expenses were going to the movies with mates, buying CDs and, kind of ironically, buying food to eat at my breaks from said job (I ate a lot of Gummi Bears and Freckles).

The juicy details of my gap year in Europe warrant their own blog post, or maybe even a chapter in a memoir one day when I am old and uber-famous (which is obviously going to happen, thank you). Suffice it to say I had the time of a lifetime, met awesome people (some of whom I’m still in touch with), saw amazing places (go to Cesky Krumlov once in your life – do it!), and maybe most importantly, I grew from a boy into a man in basically every way you can measure that.

In the final month of the trip, I found myself in Cinque Terre in north-western Italy. I was staying in the fishing village of Riomaggiore, in the grungiest shared apartment you can imagine: cheap white furniture, concrete floors and a communal toilet cubicle that doubled as the shower. To shower you just closed the door, put the toilet seat down and held the showerhead over you. It was surreal, and perpetually the wettest toilet seat known to man.

On my first day in Riomaggiore, my bank card declined at the Bancomat. No big deal – this happened sometimes. I just had to transfer some more funds from my savings account to my debit card.

But when I transferred the funds, they didn’t appear in my card. I’d forgotten two things: firstly that my debit card was with a different bank, meaning there would be a delay; and secondly, that it was a public holiday in Australia.

The upshot: I was in a foreign country, completely alone, with four euros and no money incoming for at least two days.

So I went to the nearest shop and bought an apple, so I had something in my belly, and a 1.5 litre bottle of wine, so I could get myself too fucked up to care about being hungry. My remaining four euros were now gone, but what else was I going to do? There was no way to unfuck the situation: I just had to ride it out and try to enjoy it.

europe 2006
The only digitised photo I have of myself from my 2006 backpacking trip to Europe (I used disposable film cameras back then!). This was on the Eiffel Tower.

I went back up to my grungy apartment to my fellow backpackers and told them how I was broke. I didn’t know any of them: we had all met in that apartment that very day – five of us, all coincidentally Aussies, two guys (me and Ben) and three girls (Sammy, Mia and Mon), each with different backgrounds and ages. I didn’t want to ask any of them for money, and I didn’t, but it struck me then (and still does, now) how it didn’t take money to show they cared.

We all just sat around the table – talking, telling stories, laughing, drinking – and we ended up staying there late into the night. I was wearing a plain white T-shirt a distant relative had gifted to me back in Sicily, and that night it received a gigantic crimson wine stain that I never managed to get out. And I didn’t go hungry in the end: Sammy had made pasta and she let me have some of her leftover macaroni.

When I’d had enough wine, Mia chucked the kettle on and offered me a cup of tea to drown my financial sorrows.

“Tea is so good,” she assured me. “It makes everything okay.”

I wasn’t a tea drinker before that night, but I became one from then on. Mia was right. A cup of tea really did make everything okay. I had tea to drink, and people to speak to, and there was no need to worry about anything else.

The next day, Mia, Mon and I went for a hike from Riomaggiore (the first of Cinque Terre’s five villages) to the last, Monterosso. It was twenty-two kilometres and it took us seven hours. We hiked through a series of hills and cliffs and forests: everything was lush and verdant and bathed in sunlight. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we jogged and sometimes we sprinted like deranged athletes, just for the hell of it. Sometimes we stopped to have some wine and leftover chocolate. We finally reached the beach of Monterosso at twilight. It was a pebble beach and even though it hurt our feet, we took our shoes off and ran into the ocean so the Ligurian Sea could splash over our skin.

That night, we returned to the grungy apartment. Sammy kindly cooked for us all, and we stayed up late drinking cups of tea and writing postcards for each others’ families as a prank. We were the best friends in the world.

And the next morning, we all moved on and went our separate ways. Mia and Mon, who were travelling together, went off to Spain somewhere. I think Sammy and I ended up crossing paths a couple more times in either France or Switzerland. I have no idea where Ben went.

But I never saw any of them again.

Fast friendships – genuinely affectionate but necessarily temporary – are a hallmark of the backpacking experience. But I learned a lot from these particular travelling companions, and this particular leg of my travels.

Firstly, I learned that something I perceive as disastrous isn’t always so. Because I’m an anxious person, I have a tendency to catastrophise. I can be particularly stressed about money at times. I can also panic about being unable to help myself, and having no recourse to funds certainly falls in that category. But my worries about money diminish when I think back to my time in Cinque Terre, when I was briefly stuck with no money, and I survived quite easily.

Secondly, and I know this is a bit mawkish, but I learned the best things in life really are free. The green forests of Cinque Terre. The dappled sunlight. The pebbles at Monterosso. The Ligurian Sea’s spray. The stories. The laughter. I didn’t need money to be happy then, and I know I never will.

And finally, I learned that tea is a legitimate remedy for life’s ills. In fact, tea is what prompted this blog post and the trip down memory lane. Today, life was getting too much for me in a number of ways. I sat there on the couch, a restless bundle of nerves and despair, for several minutes.

And then Mia’s voice echoed from twelve years ago. “Tea is so good. It makes everything okay.”

So I got up, flicked the kettle on, made a cuppa and thought I would distract myself by writing about the time I first heard that advice.

And as has been the case for the past twelve years, Mia was right.

Holden