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.

Mercedes_AMG-GT_Silver_carousel_1017-1152x648
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Terrifying Question in the World

Few questions strike horror into the heart of an author more than The Question That Must Not Be Named.

Ah, stuff it, I’ll risk the anguished shrieks of any authors reading this. The question is:

“What are you working on right now?”

Sounds innocuous enough, right? Don’t be fooled. This little rose of a question is studded with teeny tiny thorns that will draw droplets of fresh scarlet blood from our fragile author egos.

The reason it’s verboten is because half the time when we’re asked this, we’ve just finished a day, or a week, or a month of staring fruitlessly at a blank screen.

Or, sometimes worse, we’ve spent a long day poring over our current manuscript and have just decided it’s no longer a masterpiece novel, but the biggest, steamiest turd in the multiverse.

And sometimes, even the friendliest person asking us about our progress can feel a bit like Stewie from Family Guy passive-aggressively needling Brian about how long his novel is taking to write (AKA one of my favourite scenes of all time).

stewie brian
Stewie: How you, uh, coming on that novel you’re working on? Working on that for quite some time, huh? Talking about that three years ago, huh? You been working on that the whole time?

The upshot is that authors are sometimes just too writing-weary, depressed, agitated or just plain gutted to explain ourselves to inquiring friends, family and followers. Maybe we feel guilty about not working faster, or not having done more with our time. For the more paranoid among us, it sometimes feels like the inquirer has just noticed our total silence on the writing front, and has thought it felicitous to ask why our writing career seems to be flopping around like a dying fish at the bottom of an angler’s bucket.

So, depending on how our day is going, there is a decent chance that we would prefer to emit a whale-like groan, dramatically rend our garments and run naked through a plate glass window than actually answer this question in public.

For me, my response to this question lately has depended on how my day is going and how much detail I want to go into in that given moment. Depending on who’s asking, and how much they know of my work and my journey so far, I’ve been alternating between describing my current work-in-progress as either my “second” or my “third” novel.

However, if I’m in a rush or on my feet – say, at a book launch or a festival or aΒ  networking event, or caught in a conversation in a corridor somewhere – I will get a bit thrown and end up splicing both versions of the tale together and hoping it makes sense. This results in me blurting out highly unintelligent stuff like:

“Yeah, it’s kinda my second novel but kinda my third novel as well. Have you tried the spinach and feta mini-quiches? They’re heaps good.”

The reactions I get to that range on a spectrum from polite chuckle to blank, querying stare all the way through to the this-bloke-is-clearly-a-bit-tapped eyebrow raise.

When I responded in a similarly confusing way to a fellow Twitter author from Switzerland recently, she said it sounded like there was a story behind the whole second-slash-third novel debacle. It was only then that it occurred to me how confusing this must sound to other people, and how confused it must make me sound.

So, I thought I’d use this post to clarify where I’m at right now, and hopefully the next time I say something about this on social media, or to a friend at an event, or to my pillow as I sob myself to sleep *cough* it will make a bit more sense.

Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACEΒ 

My first real, honest-to-goodness book is a Young Adult Fantasy novel, full of adventure and magic and a bit of teen angst. I don’t want to share the working title publicly yet, so let’s refer to this one as Swordy McSwordface. I wrote it primarily between November 2014 and January 2017, and had an excellent mentor and editor from the Australian Society of Authors to help me whip it into shape.

Although external editors and agents found the writing of this novel solid, and the plot makes for a really fun, adrenaline-fuelled ride, it wasn’t met with rapturous applause from the agents and publishers I subbed it to. Upon reflection at the time, I ultimately found it wasn’t compelling enough in its current form. So, just over a year ago, I put this novel in the metaphorical drawer, and I’ll tackle it again one day when I’m clearer on what it’s missing.

20180405_101347_resized
This is Novel #1 – dust-coated, but not forgotten.

This novel is the crux of why my explanations of what I’m currently working on have been so convoluted lately. I felt that, since this novel had initially failed to get the attention of any publishers, it was a failed book and it was better to strike it from the record.

But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:

“You should definitely be counting novel 1 – just because it’s not published doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.”

I have to agree with this approach. I poured my blood, sweat, tears into this novel, not to mention bucketloads of caffeine, nicotine and swear words. And because of my imagination and my hard work, the novel now exists. It’s a real thing. This matters, because even if it never finds a home, this story was, and is, and always will be, my very first novel.

In fact, I’ve discovered it’s actually not uncommon for authors to land their debut publishing contracts with their second or third (or later) novel, not necessarily the first one they finished.

So, from today, I’m going to put more stock in it, and give this tale the respect it deserves. It will always be referred to as my first novel. It just probably won’t be my first published novel, but I am okay with that. There’s more work to be done, and I trust that I’ll return to this story – either to rework it as a novel, or pick over its bony carcass, vulture-style, for any valuable metaphors that could be torn from its pages and re-planted in a different book.

In any case, I’m no less proud of this novel than anything else I’ve written, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.

Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS

My most recently completed novel is the contemporary YA novel, Invisible Boys. After Swordy McSwordface went back in the drawer, I challenged myself to write something utterly real and unflinching, and so I wrote a fictional novel about some gay teenage boys.

And thus, Invisible Boys was born. And it was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever written – at least in terms of content.

But with regards to the mechanics of writing, Invisible Boys was the easiest thing I’ve ever produced in that the whole story just kind of fell out of me fully-formed. I started the first draft in February 2017, and by December 2017 I had a third draft sent to my agent, who had signed me on the strength of the second draft.

Invisible Boys is the only novel that people have heard me talk about. This is probably cause it’s my only full-length manuscript so far to get some external attention: it won the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award and was Highly Commended in the ASA’s 2018 Emerging Writers Mentorship Prize.

I’m so pumped for this book to find a home, not least because having this story and these characters’ voices heard matters to me more than almost anything in the universe.

Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED

I couldn’t even give you a fake working title for this one yet. It’s too new and I’m still feeling my way on where it will go, so I don’t want to say anything at this stage, other than to admit that a tentative draft has begun.

But that, at least, is progress, because until today, I would have faltered and flailed trying to work out how to present my current work-in-progress.

I know better now, and the next time you catch me hoovering mini-quiches into my gob at a book launch, I’ll be able to tell you, with confidence, “I’m currently working on my third novel.”

Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.

And, hopefully, without giving a whale-moan, flaying myself alive and careening through a plate of solid glass.

Holden

2017 Is Done, And I’m Still Breathing

I always find it hard to sum up a year when I’m still living it.

Every 31st December, the prevailing sentiment for most people is that we are weary battlers who made it through another year of global spite and personal chaos. So often, we are quick to deliver the departing year a few quick bludgeons on the back of the head as it crosses the threshold from felt experience into history. I know I’ve shared more than one meme about the years lining up to beat the living shit out of me.

Sometimes it really feels that way, doesn’t it? We barely escape a calendar year with our sanity and hope intact, only to get clobbered by the next January.

This is just life, of course. With each passing year, I’ve come to realise that it’s the nature of every year that there are some significant highs and often some crushing lows. Even when I’ve had a terrible year – like perhaps 2010 and 2013 (not incidentally, years where I worked full-time in day jobs and didn’t write a word) – there were some really amazing things that I enjoyed about those years. Likewise, happier years like perhaps 2008 (when I hit my stride at uni) and 2011 (when I started my Hons degree and finished an important story) had their share of bullshit and pain, too.

fork in the road 2017a
As usual at this time of year, I find myself at a literal fork in the road.

2017 is no different. The year started horrendously: I had just been made redundant at my old full-time job, and the novel I had spent two and a half years working on garnered no interest from literary agents. At first, I fell into an abyss and gave myself permission to stay there for a little while.

But I always prefer to push on, and not wallow. So I decided to see losing my job and my first novel’s failure to get any interest from agents as a chance for a new beginning. I was determined to find a new job that I really loved. I would push on and work harder to get published. And dammit, I would try to change my unhealthy habits along the way, too.

If I could encapsulate this year in one image and one moment, it would be me sprinting and sweating on a treadmill at sunset while “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga throbbed in my eardrums. Man, that song was a driving force behind me all year long.

2017 for me was a year of intensely hard work; and a year where I learned intensely hard work does not just apply to paid jobs or manual labour. I worked hard and sacrificed – day and night, weekdays and weekends – until I got bits and pieces of what I wanted.

In the work domain, I eventually landed a bunch of casual jobs that just barely allowed me to make ends meet. It was uniquely stressful trying to cram so many roles into my week’s calendar, but I did it. Often it was not enough money to pay for everything, so it was a damn tough year financially and I had to sacrifice and struggle, but I refused to give in and go back to full time work. That part of my life is now over. I am a writer, first and foremost, now, and I will take on only part-time and casual work to get me through.

In the writing sphere, I had the best year of my life, hands down. I released three of my short-stories as e-Books, and got to see one of them chart on iBooks in the US which was incredible. I became the Vice-President of my local writing centre. I wrote a significant and highly personal article on same-sex marriage for the Huffington Post which went viral and briefly tapped into the national conversation. I was interviewed a few times on commercial, community and AM radio.

And best of all, I wrote my second novel. This novel was birthed as a novella in February, and came screaming and kicking out of me in July and August. INVISIBLE BOYS was completed this year, and went on to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award. It also caught the interest of literary agent extraordinaire Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency, who I gleefully signed to in November.

I also kept working on my fitness this year: I lost another 20 kilos (bringing the grand total to 30 kg lost since 2016) but most importantly, I kept and maintained a dedicated fitness and diet regime, which continues into 2018. I also finally quit smoking (again) but this time it seems to have stuck: as of five hours from now, 2017 will be my first whole year without a cigarette since 2009, and I am very thrilled about this.

Often these kinds of “year-in-review” posts can be seen to be in bad taste. I see people on Facebook often mocked for showing off their achievements, or cherry-picking only the good stuff. I guess I see the humour in that (the Bell Tower Times had a hilarious post about this just today) but I also see the value in reflective thinking and summarising one’s experience in a way that starts to build a narrative for oneself.

And no, 2017 was not uniquely a good year. In fact, in a whole load of private ways, this year was one of the most painful and difficult of my entire life. I don’t dwell on these matters, or even identify all of them, because I don’t want to and it’s too painful. But I suppose I want to acknowledge that they’re there.

The only one I will cast some light on is that writing a novel like INVISIBLE BOYS was a total headfuck and required me to mine the depths of some very old trauma and pain, and this had an enormous effect on me. In fact, when I lived some of the experience that contributes to this fictional book, it nearly killed me. And when I first tried to write about it in 2012, it nearly killed me a second time. In 2017, I managed to revisit it and write about it with honesty and transparency and no sacred cows, and I am still breathing.

In fact, that’s my proudest achievement of 2017: that even after tackling my demons, I’m still breathing.

2018 promises to be an even more arduous year of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and courage (and probably spear-tackling some demons again, just for good measure), so I’m excited to dive in and keep breathing through next year, too.

Congratulations to all of you for surviving 2017, and I can’t wait to travel more of this road with you next year. Happy new year! πŸ™‚

Holden