How Alanis Morissette Saved My Life

One day in 1995, I rocked up to primary school to see a whole bunch of classmates gathered around an enclave behind the Year 2 classroom. Someone had scrawled an angry message in black Artline texta on the otherwise non-threatening beige bricks. The message read:

“Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” – Alanis Morissette

Keep in mind we were all seven years old, so we were mystified by this strange message which actually contained One Of The Really Bad Swear Words. Now, one of the other kids alerted us that the teacher was coming, so we raced back to line up for class, and I suspect for everyone else that was the end of the mystery.

But my curious little sponge-brain kept churning. Who was this mysterious Alanis Morissette? Was he the dodgy guy who roamed around in the bushland next to our school? Was he a killer? Was he threatening to fuck someone, whatever ‘fuck’ actually meant? I was quite convinced I’d found a clue to some kind of local murder case. Of course, being seven, I eventually forgot about the brewing criminal investigation, failed to inform the Geraldton Police, and went back to learning my times tables.

I was too young to place the name – but looking back, I can clearly recall that was my first exposure to the woman who would, some years later, become my favourite musical artist of all time.

Over the next decade my awareness grew a tiny bit. I had a vague knowledge of Alanis Morissette as some angry chick with a harmonica on the radio. I heard her thank India on the radio when I was ten years old but never knew it was her song.

It was in 2004 that something significant happened. I was draped over the couch one Sunday and my dad was reading the entertainment magazine that came inside the weekend newspaper.

“Hey, you know that Alanis Morissette?” he asked me. (Everyone’s name has a “that” before it when my dad uses it.)

“Yeah.” The local bushland killer guy. No. Wait. Famous singer-songwriter bird. “What about her?”

“She says in this interview that she wanted to kill herself back when she was younger. Can you imagine? All that fame and money and she still wanted to top herself.”


And that little factoid got stored in my brain. I didn’t dwell on it that day – I went back to whatever I spent my weekends doing at sixteen, which was probably either working on my awesome Pokemon fanfiction (it was super cool, thanks) or planning how to sneak away for my next wank.

A few weeks later, maybe, I heard Alanis’ single “Out is Through” on the radio and watched the video on Rage with my little sister. I liked it enough to wait for it to come on the radio and tape it on a cassette to listen to later, and it ended up as a mediocre track on one of my many top 40 mixes.

In 2006, a German girl I met while backpacking through Europe burned me a mix CD for my discman (I’d got with the times). Track 4 of that album was Alanis’ song “Everything”. It was a nice enough song.

The reason I list all these little touchpoints is because even though I knew who and what Alanis was by this point in my life, she was always just another singer-songwriter. Pleasing to the ear; lyrically skilful; beautiful voice. But nothing groundbreaking. I was quite heavily into Killing Heidi and The Offspring and The Darkness and solo artists didn’t really enter that equation.

It was in 2007 that everything changed. I was on a trip to Melbourne with my family to see Collingwood play at the MCG, and at some point later that week we wound up in a record shop. I had grown my hair long and my face was covered in typical eighteen-year-old bumfluff and I was in a moody depressive haze, and suddenly while flicking through CDs I came across a purple disc with a hand on the cover.

Alanis Morissette: The Collection.

And immediately, I heard my Dad’s voice from three years before. She wanted to kill herself.

It meant nothing to me in 2004, but everything to me in 2007, because by then, in that very moment, I was a rage-filled, repressed, suicidal timebomb and I was ready to explode.

Compelled, I bought the album and went straight to the hotel, put my earphones in and listened to it.

It was a song called Eight Easy Steps that changed my life. These lyrics, in particular, struck a chord inside me so deep that my soul reverberated until my teeth shook:

How to lie to yourself and thereby to everyone else
How to keep smiling when you’re thinking of killing yourself
How to numb à la ‘holic to avoid going within
How to stay stuck in blue by blaming them for everything

I’ll teach you all this in eight easy steps
The course of a lifetime, you’ll never forget
I’ll show you how to in eight easy steps
I’ll show you how leadership looks when taught by the best

I was stunned. She knew. She knew what this shit felt like. Real shit. And she knew exactly how I was feeling. She had written it down and articulated it in a way I didn’t have the skills, or emotional capacity or distance, to do. I’d never heard someone sing about wanting to kill themselves in such a way.

And all I could think was, “well, she’s still alive, so maybe she knows something I don’t”.

And so, I let Alanis Morissette show me how leadership looks. I followed her songs, one by one through YouTube searches, and became more and more amazed at her lyrical and musical artistry. I found the 1998 hard rocker “Joining You” on a YouTube video about gay suicide and must have played it a hundred times before finally going to a local record shop to buy the album it came from, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

Junkie was the first studio record of Alanis’ I heard, and it remains my favourite album of all time to this day. It is a sprawling mess of dirty riffs, drum loops, Eastern-influenced strings and dark, experimental lyrics, and each song was – and still is – like therapy. Before long, I’d worked my way through Alanis Morissette’s entire discography.

People who know me personally already know that I am a huge fan, but they may not know the extent to which Alanis’ music quite literally saved my life.

When I describe myself as a timebomb in that era, I mean I was a mess of sparking, short-circuiting emotions and I had no way of processing or understanding them. That changed when I found this artist. Her music and lyrics helped me to get through each black day. They made me unravel and try to understand myself. They eventually made me want to keep living.

“Joining You” and “Eight Easy Steps” and “Can’t Not” and so many other songs helped me tackle the dark shit in my head.

“Right Through You” and “Sympathetic Character” and “Not The Doctor” helped me to channel my rage.

“I Was Hoping” and “Hands Clean” helped me rethink and reprocess my teenage dalliances with much older men.

And beyond helping me endure the hardest times and make sense of the mess that was my own brain, Alanis’ approach to art informed my own. I became utterly convinced that good art is honest art. Art that is unflinching and unfettered; art that speaks to what hurts more than anything else; art that yields to no sacred cows, but speaks the truth regardless of fallout.

It is a philosophy that now, in 2018, is at the very core of who I am as a writer and an artist. It’s what made me throw caution to the wind and write my novel INVISIBLE BOYS, which is, upon reflection, incredibly unabashed and honest.

This same drive is now burning anew in my chest since last night’s concert, when I saw Alanis perform at the ICC Theatre in Sydney. The way the songs connected directly to my inner self, like a lariat of healing wrapped around my heart, brought tears to my eyes again. Her voice during Mary Jane reminded me of the power of putting all your emotion into something. Her delivery of You Oughta Know recalled the power of channelling truth into art.

And so I’m revitalised for 2018 – not just to write another novel, but to write a novel that brims with honest emotion. Honest and unfettered expression is my ultimate paragon in this quest, and I can’t wait to see that spill across the page.

It’s hard being an artist and it’s hard being a sensitive person. But it’s a little easier when someone leads the way and somehow manages to understand and express your inexpressible feelings for you.



The Importance of STOPPING (Before You Crash)

So, I finally stopped.

This past week I’ve been marvelling – like a bit of a glazed-eyed idiot – at how incredible it feels to do nothing. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped everything. No work. No writing. No being productive, or responsible, or busy. Not even my usual obsessive checking of my work emails on my phone. Rien. Nada. Niente.

And fuck, it feels amazing. I feel more like a human being and less of a worker bee.

It’s strange how one man’s epiphany can be entirely obvious to someone else, though. We’ve had my sister and her boyfriend staying with us for a few weeks over the summer. Most mornings, my sister will take a cup of English Breakfast tea out onto the patio and I’ll follow her out there with my protein shake (an unholy melange of whey isolate protein and three or four raw egg whites). We chat for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, before beginning our respective days, and each morning I’ve waxed lyrical about how good it has felt to stop. She has fixed me with a dead-eyed stare each time, like I’m some unique new specie of moron she has not yet been trained to deal with.

It struck me, at this point, that I’m not quite normal, because most people DO stop, all the time, and so being mystified by the experience seems ridiculous. My sister works incredibly hard as a nurse, often working night shifts and usually with some intensely challenging patients, and she knows full well the value of downtime. She curls up with her boyfriend and watches TV and just veges the fuck out.

I’ve always been a bit of a high-functioning humanoid since my youth: working hard, taking on more and more stuff, seeking more information and input and stimuli. But I think when I was a kid I took a lot more time to chill. When I reflect on my past year – in fact, every year I can remember for the last decade – I feel like all I’ve been doing is hurtling through each day. Meetings for this job. Classes to teach for the other jobs. Do some emails for the fourth job. Work work work work work. (Insert either a Fifth Harmony or Rihanna intonation here – your choice.)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast with American therapist Dr Bryan Robinson, who is an expert on work addiction, and a lot of what he described rang true for me in terms of my hectic approach to life. I overtax myself to the point of burnout quite regularly, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times previously on this blog. My modus operandi is to hurtle through one week, and the next, and I keep hurtling until I crash.

And I don’t react normally to a crash. I think a realistic reaction would be:


And for myriad reasons that I’d need a counsellor to drill down into accurately, my reaction has always been:

Well, the car’s crashed and it’s burning around me. Let’s see if I can get the motor running again. Oh, sweet, the engine turned over. Great. Let me just shake this glass out of my hair and then I can get this bastard on the freeway again. Why does it smell like smoke and burning rubber in here? Vroom!

You don’t need any more car crash metaphors to get the idea.

I’ll try not to beat up on myself for being the guy who just realised that resting and recharging is a bloody good idea. Instead I’ll just extol its virtues, and learn to do this more often, because it’s brought me back to the kind of guy I actually want to be. I feel like myself more than I have in a fair while, because I’m actually taking time for myself.

So what has stopping actually looked like for me this summer? So far it’s meant:

  • Working Out: This is my favourite release and the most enjoyable pastime I have outside of writing. I like being a cerebral and creative person, but I also love getting the hell out of my mind and into my body and just being a meathead for an hour or two each day. Getting down to the gym and lifting weights is a great workout (and release) and sprinting or cycling or jumping or climbing burns so much nervous fuel and energy it’s better than any drug.
  • Reading: I’ve been working my way through Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – a book I actually didn’t think had hooked me at first, but about 100+ pages in, it snared me and now I really want to see where it goes.
  • Gaming: My boyfriend, who is a hardcore gamer with the headset and mic and keyboard and all, is always at pains to remind me I’m a casual gamer, not a “real” one. Still, I love spending hours just playing a good game. This summer I’ve been hooked on the latest Call of Duty (I love a good FPS; WWII is such a return to form) and Cities: Skylines (geeky af but I love building cities).
  • Soaking up some sun: Now that the sun’s out, I’m spending at least half an hour a day just sitting in the sun and working on my tan. I’m supposed to be an olive-skinned Sicilian, but winter always leaves me looking like a pale pommy bastard, so a bit of sun goes a long way.

It’s been a great 11 days so far and I’m so glad I took the time to stop properly. I won’t forget how important this is, and I’ll make sure to do it again soon. I’ve got a couple more days of chilling out, and then I’ll be flying across to the other side of the country for two weeks to get stuck into some work.

My writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House (in the Blue Mountains), begins next week and I reckon it’s going to be an incredible experience. I’ll be given a room and a studio to work from and a whole week to work on my next novel – which is so unreal. To have no distractions or responsibilities for a week, and just be able to focus on my writing, is a dream come true.

Stay tuned – I’ll share updates from the week and definitely some photos. Apparently there are beautiful sights up in the Blue Mountains!

Holden 🙂

It’s a Bitch to Grow Up

Far out, man.

I’d be hard pressed to pick a period of time in which I’ve been more hectic than I have been the past few weeks.

In fact, when I sat down at my desk today, I glanced at the papers strewn across it, including a very dated and half-completed to-do list, and realised I had not touched my laptop or sat down in my nice cushy IKEA chair for an entire two weeks!

It’s been that long since I threw together a blog post, too, which is hideous as I try hard to get the weekly blog posts happening with regularity.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know a bit about what’s been keeping me flat out in the writing space: a couple of really big wins that I will dedicate my next blog post to. I’d talk about them now, but it’s already 11pm and I’m knackered.

The other weight on me has been work. Like a lot of authors, I juggle a whole bunch of part-time and casual roles (and, foolishly, some voluntary ones, too). Usually this is manageable, but lately all of them have demanded my time at once, and I’ve found myself feeling like I’m desperate for air but stuck underwater. I am totally overwhelmed and the situation I’ve put myself in is quite clearly no longer manageable.

I blogged in July about this same sense of burnout, and it is becoming really clear to me that I still haven’t learned my lesson.

There is a latter-day Alanis Morissette song (circa 2008) called “It’s a Bitch To Grow Up”, and some of the lyrics are hitting home right now.

Namely the verse:

I’ve repeated this dance ad nauseum
There’s still something to learn that I’ve not

This is really so true. I have burnt out a few times now. As in, ending up in hospital kind of burn out. And like a magpie attacking its reflection in a flying rage, I somehow keep repeating the same mistake ad nauseum.

I’m an ambitious person by nature, so I like to take on more and more stuff, but I really have to come to grips with the fact that I can’t do everything at once. It’s just not possible, especially when I have five different paid jobs, a couple of voluntary positions and a writing career. It’s lunacy.

And as I’ve already established through my musings on this blog and elsewhere, writing is the thing that matters most to me.

So I think it’s time I learn that I can’t do a million things at once without making myself sick. I need to stop. I need to slow down. I need to recalibrate and work out how to run my life effectively in a way that allows me to prioritise my writing career without letting the day jobs and other commitments choke all the air out of the room.

I really just need to learn how to take care of myself, don’t I?

As Alanis said:

I feel done, I feel raked over coals
and all that remains is the case
That it’s a bitch to grow up





I’m Not Growing Up, I’m Just Burning Out

Last week I wrote about some crappy days full of mid-level SNAFUs. This week started in a similar vein. My calendar was like a line of sadistic babushka dolls: opening each one revealed a new day filled with even more heinous fuckery than the last.

babushka dolls
Each one just a little more evil than the last. That baby one looks shifty AF.

It was a full-on week because one of my programs at work launches next week, so there was heaps to do. Trying to get my emails down was about as useful as bringing sponges to soak up a flood. Actually, a flood is an apt metaphor: all week, I felt like I was standing downstream from a dam about to burst. I accumulated a constant headache, which I carried all week, along with a mouth ulcer.

These are the body’s ways of telling you to slow the fuck down, so praise be to Rebecca Black that it’s Friday the weekend.

I’ve taken on a lot. July was going to be a break but, even in addition to my day jobs and their deadlines, it’s been an enormous month. I undertook Camp NaNoWriMo, and have so far written 47,000 words of my 50,000 word target so far. I published THE BLACK FLOWER, which is seriously more work than anyone outside the indie publishing game would probably believe. I submitted a whole bunch of applications for writing stuff that kept me up into the wee hours each morning. I smashed through a weight-loss goal at the gym, which has been a long time coming and was a big moment.

There was also an awesome part of the week – involving my first radio performance and

2. The Scroll of Isidor - Cover
Sales of THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR surged this week: it has reached #3 on the iBooks Epic Fantasy Chart.

interview as a writer – but I will blog about that next week, as well as share the recording of the show. As a sidebar, the promo gave me a huge spike in sales, and got THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR to chart at #3 on the Epic Fantasy chart on iBooks – but again, I’ll expand on that another day.

Right now, the point is this: all of those things demanded time and energy, and by the time I got to Friday, I discovered I had nothing left to give.

I was knocking on burnout’s door.

I’m not even kidding. After I did some work at a local library on Friday afternoon, I was meant to go home and get on top of some other projects from my home office.

But I couldn’t. Not ‘I didn’t want to’. I couldn’t. My brain had finally overloaded. I’d hit a wall, like JD in that episode of Scrubs where he tries to do a triathlon.

I started thinking about a lyric from a Green Day song I like called Burnout: “I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out.” Yep, sounds about right. You would think with age comes wisdom, but nope: the older I get the more I realise my growth does not inhibit my capacity to make terrible choices when it comes to taking too much on all at once.

So, instead of working any further, I went into a kind of burnt-out, shell-shocked stupor for about an hour. I sat down and read some stuff in the library, trance-like. Then I had ice cream for lunch (this is what happens when you stop giving a fuck) and sat in the local ice cream parlour staring through the window at the people racing by to complete their errands. I was frozen with inertia, and had absolutely no capacity or desire to join these fools in their rushing panics, even though I was one of them. I desperately needed to plug myself in and recharge before I could do anything the world needed of me.

rebecca black
But it’s Saturday. You’re too late, Rebecca Black. TOO LATE.

I suppose normal humanoids who know how to take care of themselves call this a “lunch break”. I never give myself enough downtime. But, though unplanned, the break gave me enough joules to function again. I pushed through the last series of work and errands for the day, and then, finally, at around 7pm, my day was done. I got my arse to the gym. Running and lifting are the best ways I know to de-stress. Sweating gets me out of my head and into my body.

And I ran fast, like a barefoot bogan on a Geraldton footpath in February.

Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein had me almost headbanging on the treadmill.

And then a steaming hot shower. Denouement.

Self-care is so vital for everyone, but it’s a hard thing to manage for artists in particular – or entrepreneurs – or, really, anyone who’s trying to juggle multiple priorities in their life without losing the plot.

There are two perspectives on this.

One person, who is a bit of a self-care guru, recently looked at my schedule for July and exclaimed, “THAT’S your month off?”

Another person, who is a little more business-minded, said, “Yes, but you’re a writer. You’re the same as an entrepreneur. You’ve gotta hustle.”

I think both are right.

I work hard because I know that I must, if I am to get what I want. My dream will not see fruition if I don’t drive it. The whip must be cracked.

But at the same time, if I crack the whip too hard, I won’t just have a broken whip: I’ll have a broken back.

I don’t want to lead a life that is stressed-out, unhappy, boring and dull – which is what this past week or two has been like. If I wanted that, I would never have quit the 9 to 5 rat race.

Life goals.

But I did quit it. Because I want something different. I want to live, dammit! I want to have fun. I want to have the energy to do stuff I like doing.

So that means I need to start taking care of myself a whole lot better. It won’t happen overnight, so let’s call this a work in progress.

Are you an artist, or an entrepreneur, or just anyone who works hard at their dreams or goals? How do you find a way to switch off and wind down?