My second novel THE BRINK is published tomorrow and I am so excited for it.
I had intended to write a more comprehensive blog post to herald this book’s release, but I’ve been swamped for a long time.
I was doing a podcast interview earlier today when I mentioned how I recall the specific moment my career exploded. I was standing in the art exhibition space in building 16 at Edith Cowan University’s Mount Lawley Campus in mid-2018, back when I worked there, and while setting up for the event, I glanced at my phone and saw an email from Griffith Review.
The email stated that my novella “Poster Boy” had been declared one of the five winners of the 2018 Novella Project competition, and would be published in Griffith Review #62 later that year.
I remember being numb with shock, disbelief, excitement, anticipation. It had been a long slog to get any of my work recognised. And this email came a few months after a phone call with my then-agent, who advised me that the big 5 publishers in Australia had all rejected the full-length novel manuscript we were pitching to them, titled INVISIBLE BOYS.
I remember taking that phone call in March 2018, a few minutes before teaching an Academic Writing tutorial at ECU for their University Preparation Course. My heart sank through the floor. I remember saying to my agent, “So, is INVISIBLE BOYS dead in the water, or what?” And while she assured me it wasn’t, I feared my career was over before it had begun, and had to go on to cheerily teach a class about how to write an academic essay while inside I felt devastated that I would never make it as an author.
So, just a few months later, when I stood in that white-walled art exhibition space and saw the email from Griffith Review, I was ecstatic. Something was happening! Something I wrote was getting published in a really respected journal. I remember how my colleagues – Sarah, Shad and Julie – celebrated with me, supported me, and encouraged me. It was an awesome win after a long few months of failure.
When “Poster Boy” got published, I was given a few thousand dollars of prize money. It was the first time I’d made any real money off my writing, ever. And I remember that moment as the start of an avalanche, because a few weeks later, INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for the Hungerford, and then it won, and then things went KABOOM .
I mention the mid-2018 “Poster Boy” moment because it was from that moment that my career kicked up a gear and I felt overwhelmed by it for the longest time. The world became a gigantic, non-stop hustle. The INVISIBLE BOYS tour was awesome. But it also made me dissociate the fuck out of my body almost every gig, because it was just so intense to revisit that trauma over and over.
It wasn’t until late 2021 that I started to feel like I had any level of control over my life again. I started learning how to say no to things, how to put up boundaries, how to protect and defend my writing time and my time to just be a human being. I learned how to define myself beyond being a writer. I found a lot of peace and comfort in weightlifting, and cardio, and playing social footy, and working as a labourer again.
I mention this because my headspace, now, today, the day before my second novel comes out, is so wildly different to how I felt the first time.
When INVISIBLE BOYS came out I felt like a newborn foal taking his first shaky steps only to cop a torrent of fire-hose-pressure water to the face. I felt knocked off my feet. I had only just worked out who I was, and then the whole world seemed to just COME AT ME, with its misreadings and expectations and projections. Ahh, it was amazing and horrific in equal measure.
Tonight, I am sitting at my desk with a can of bourbon, pausing for just a minute to reflect on how I feel before THE BRINK goes out into the world.
I am really happy to say that this time around, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t feel like a nervous foal finding his feet in a dangerous environment.
I feel like a goddamn wild stallion.
This time around, I know who I am. I know I am not everyone’s cuppa tea and I don’t give a shit. I’ve happily set up a whole tour where I can put myself out there, show up as I really am, meet a whole heap of you guys, and then promptly retreat back to my cave to take care of myself once it’s done.
This headspace was hard-won. I pushed back against the expectation that authors, gay YA authors specifically, have some duty to be good role models (fuck that – it’s unhealthy!) and I rejected the projection of literary class that was foisted upon me in the public eye by proudly accepting my status as a bogan on season seven of the ABC’s TV show YOU CAN’T ASK THAT (I’m not kidding – the moment that episode aired I felt this bulk sense of relief that I didn’t have to pretend to be anything other than a Gero dero anymore).
I really can’t overstate how much these moves have made a difference to how settled I feel.
I don’t feel any pressure to be perfect or well-behaved or anybody’s role model.
I don’t feel the weight of being an award-winning literary author.
I feel more comfortable showing up as myself now. The good parts and the bad.
It makes the eve of a new book release far less daunting than last time. Instead of this sense of dread and terror, I feel excited.
I have written a book I am proud of. It is, as John Mellencamp would say, the best that I could do. It is a book about self-discovery and self-love. It is about wrestling your own identity back from who the world wants and expects you to be – something I have spent the past few years trying to do. It is, I hope, an ode to self-empowerment and finding a way to be yourself, even if the climate around you has always made you feel like shit. It is about Leonardo, the shy, terrified boy who wants to be tough; and Kaiya, the high-achiever who wants to be bad; and Mason, the footy jock who wants to be with his best mate, Jared. It is about burning your fake persona down to find who you really are – who you really wanna be.
It’s also a kickarse thriller (well, I reckon it is). I hope youse like it.
With all the edits to THE BRINK obviously now completed, and my third book draft completed and sent off to my agent and publisher earlier today, I am finally able to get back to blogging and sharing more writing and reflections with you guys again – just in time for my tour.
This time last year, I blogged about 2020 being a shitshow, but that it seemed like ‘the tide was turning’ for 2021.
For many, 2021 was as bad as, or worse than, 2020. And it looks like 2022 is heading for a rocky start, too.
It might seem weird to do things like goal-setting, or writing, when the world is a tyre fire.
But doom scrolling on Twitter isn’t useful: it’s a huge sapper of creative energy and is best avoided. The world’s fortunes are beyond my control.
What is within my control is what I’m going to spend my energy on this year.
I find solace in escaping into writing, and setting goals at the start of a new year always motivates me to work hard.
Before I evaluate my 2021 goals and set my 2022 goals, though, I want to touch on a couple of things around goals.
Earlier this week, an emerging writer contacted me for advice. He felt plagued by self-doubt (as we all do) and said that since I seem big on setting and reaching goals, he wanted to know how I keep focused.
We chatted about it, but his observation validated why I do these blogs each year, because there was a time when people in my life had no concept that I actually worked hard.
Years ago, I remember sharing some good career news with a family member, and he replied dismissively, ‘Oh yeah, you’re always just so lucky. Shit just falls in your lap.’
I wanted to shout at him, because this was such a skewed perspective. That opportunity did not just fall in my lap: I had to get a degree, then an Honours year, then achieve a bunch of stuff, then spend years networking, proving my worth and actually asking for it.
I outlined this to him, but he just shrugged like ‘sure, whatever man’.
His mind was made up: to him, I led an unfairly charmed life, and my success was due to me being more cosmically fortunate than him. Dumb luck.
I think this is really misunderstood about artists. Our successes seem to happen miraculously, but there is so much unseen, unpaid work behind all of it. For every publication, years of toiling at a desk, full of self-doubt, with zero promise of any payoff.
Creative success is an iceberg: people see the single achievement, but not the years of ruthless determination and work that made it happen.
So, when emerging writers ask for my advice, I always say you need to first set clear goals: what are you trying to achieve, and by when.
Next, you need to actively block out the time into your calendar, every week of the coming year, to allocate towards working at each goal.
Your goals need to dictate what your daily life looks like.
I don’t think this can be taught. There just needs to be a moment where the desire to achieve your goals overwhelms your fear and inertia to act on them.
For me, that moment was New Year’s Day 2014.
That day, the dawning of yet another year as an unsuccessful wannabe writer finally broke me.
I felt like a supreme failure; all talk. Since the age of seven I’d been saying I wanted to be an author, and yet here I was at twenty-five with nothing to show for it. Where’s your book, loser?
I had a moment where I got so angry, I just lost my shit. I grabbed an empty notebook and cut sick, ranting and raging in a stream-of-consciousness style, page after page.
What emerged in those pages was that I was fed up investing all my time, money and energy into stuff that only took me further away from where I actually wanted to be in life.
So, New Year’s Day 2014 was the moment I furiously decided to burn all of that stuff down.
I renounced trying to have a good full-time job and career.
I renounced trying to earn lots of money.
I renounced academic validation.
Just now, I dug that particular notebook out of my filing cabinet. It’s a Game of Thrones notebook with an image of the Iron Throne on its cover. Among the many hectic, rage-fuelled, ink-scrawled pages that day in January 2014, I wrote:
I ain’t no good little straight A’s boy getting an office job to make everyone proud and happy.
I am a fucking artist and I am gonna sing for my supper forevermore.
I will make my life happen.
That moment was when my whole life changed, and I became a dedicated artist.
I started calling myself a writer, got working on my first manuscript, and set a goal to complete it by the end of that year.
Since I had a full-time job at the time, my only chance to achieve that goal was to use my nights and weekends. I had to sacrifice all my spare time. I used to fill my down-time with studying various qualifications and drinking and socialising with work mates, uni mates, school mates.
I sacrificed that. No more studying. No more socialising.
I only had so many hours to use per week. If I wanted to avoid being in the exact same place come January 2015, I had to actively make changes in my life.
I dedicated myself to the hustle: evenings and weekends became writing time.
I didn’t miss my old pursuits. Working hard at my dream was a joyous end in and of itself. Even if I never got a book published, I felt alive and happy.
I’m sharing this because whenever someone asks me about goals and discipline as a writer, I feel I can only do so much in the way of advice.
I reckon it’s up to each individual artist to have their ‘fuck everything’ moment, where they get so mad they decide to actually do something about it.
If you’re struggling with this, I encourage you to lean into that moment and embrace it.
Not everyone is the same, of course, but it worked for me.
I spent 2014 working on my first draft, and completed that manuscript in January 2015. Finally, a new year rolled around where I felt satisfied. I wasn’t published, I had no accolades and still felt like a failure – but I was working my arse off to change it.
I was unsuccessful but trying, and that made all the difference.
I have kept this approach ever since, which has helped propel me year after year to keep chasing what I want.
I did the same in 2021, setting ten goals for the year: four writing goals and six personal life goals.
Here’s how I went:
2021 GOALS IN REVIEW
1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.
This finally panned out in 2021. I signed a two-book deal with Text Publishing for my second novel, THE BRINK (out August 2022) and my third novel (out late 2023, probably). Big thanks to my agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary, for securing me an incredible advance that meant I could be a full-time writer – a lifelong dream come true.
On the editing front, I spent the year doing edits and the next draft is due back to my publisher at the end of January.
2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.
This didn’t happen. I scheduled September and October to smash a second draft, but some crap personal life stuff happened and blew this to pieces. I had a shit few months and couldn’t write anything real. I wrote a Pokémon fanfiction novella to distract myself instead.
My third novel is due to my publisher this April, so I’ll work on it in the first half of this year.
3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
This project moved forward at speed in 2021. We got funding from Screen Australia, held a couple of writers’ rooms, got the first episode script written (holy shit, it’s awesome!), and in November 2021, we won a grant from streaming service Stan and Screenwest to develop the show into a ten-episode TV series.
TV development is a long process, but the next steps during 2022 will be to seek more funding to make this actually happen. Stay tuned.
4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
This one worked out. My short story, Rappaccini’s Son, was published in the book HOMETOWN HAUNTS (Wakefield Press, 2021). A second piece, a short memoir titled Territory, was accepted for publication in the forthcoming book GROWING UP IN COUNTRY AUSTRALIA (Black Inc, March 2022).
I was also commissioned by WAToday to write a media article about gay conversion therapy, which was widely shared on social media and led to me fronting other press and radio opportunities to speak on the issue.
5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).
I managed to maintain this all year and actually exceeded it. On average per week, I did four weights sessions and two cardio sessions (footy training and footy game) – six workouts total. I pushed myself to stick to this even when my nutrition was bad or my energy levels were low, and I’m glad of that.
6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I failed this badly. I had a highly-disciplined first three months: by early April, I was down from 87 kg to 77.7kg, and it seemed I would achieve this. But my mental health nosedived in April, and I ate and drank heavily for months. By June, I was back at 86kg again, and by the end of December, I was still 84kg.
7.Get first tattoos in 2021.
This didn’t happen either, and I’m getting mad about it. I wanna get my ink when I’m feeling good about my physique, so this goal is tied to me sorting out my nutrition. I also need money to spare for tattoos, which I currently don’t have as I’m living off advance and royalty income and need to conserve funds. Urgh.
8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.
I worked hard at this. For the first three months, I trained with an amateur AFL team, ECU Jets, in addition to the Perth Hornets AFL 9s team. I’ve always wanted to give full-contact AFL a crack. I enjoyed the training, but I felt badly out of my depth in terms of skills – sometimes, embarrassingly so – and I wasn’t able to make it work. The coaches and players welcomed me even knowing I’m a gay bloke, though, and I liked that. But combined with my mental health nosedive and years of crap self-esteem around sports, it became too much. I pulled out to focus on just AFL 9s.
I did become more useful to the team, and I was really proud when the Hornets coach awarded me the trophy for Most Improved Player last month. It’s the first time in my life I’ve won a trophy for anything sports-related. I’ll never be a natural athlete, but I was chuffed to be recognised for putting in the hard work. It’s hard to suck at something, in front of other people, week after week, but still show up and keep trying. I am proud of that.
9. Do at least one guitar lesson.
After I failed my 2020 goal of doing a whole term of ten guitar lessons, I thought this was a nice, low-ball goal. Lol, nup. I didn’t fit in a single guitar lesson in 2021.
10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.
This was an odd goal, but I wanted to ensure I did stuff for fun. I went quad biking with mates, jumped on massive trampolines, went to concerts and went on a footy trip to Lancelin.
Overall, I hit six out of ten goals in 2021. Not bad, not bad. I don’t stress about failed goals; they just kept me refocus on what I do and don’t want to keep trying at the following year.
My goals for 2021 look similar, but I’m simplifying down to just eight goals instead of ten. Four writing goals, four life goals:
Complete the final edits for The Brink and promote its release.
Complete the second draft of Book 3.
Work on the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
Get one piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weights, footy and cardio).
Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 April 2022.
Get first tattoos in first half of 2022.
Train harder at footy and grow more confident.
The first goal is massive, because the front end of the year will be preparing The Brink for release, and August onwards will be promoting it heavily with media and events. It will be hard to fit anything extra into 2022.
Because of this, stuff like guitar and fun shit will go on the backburner for a less hectic year. This year I’d love to go quad biking, go-karting or get out on a dirt bike, but I won’t set it as a goal. I’ve also left off full-contact AFL: I’m still interested, but it’s on the backburner.
I have a couple of more personal goals, too. I’m not sure if I’ll share them later or not, but I’ll be working on these quietly in my own time this year.
I’m keen to get started on smashing my goals now. The main joy for me is not necessarily being able to write ‘success’ or ‘fail’ at the end of each year, but just enjoying the dogged gut-fire I get that makes me work at each goal, week in, week out. It’s the most fun and rewarding way I know how to live.
In that notebook from 2014, I found a quote I wrote down from Paulo Coelho that I want to share here, to finish up. Coelho says, ‘Do something instead of killing time. Because time is killing you.’ I’ve always found that quote brutally motivational. I hope you might, too.
However you plan to spend your 2022, and whatever your own goals are, here’s to a year that, hopefully, has some good surprises in store for us all.
When I was a kid, I used to wonder what took authors so long between books.
I couldn’t fathom why Emily Rodda or Geoffrey McSkimming or JK Rowling would take years to produce the next instalment of Rowan of Rin or Cairo Jim or Harry Potter. What were they doing – swanning around their writery mansions, swimming in backlit infinity pools, drinking cocktails? I didn’t understand how, if you had a publisher, and money, and time, it could take more than a few months to churn out a new book.
Man, am I eating my words now I’m working on my third book. This shit is nowhere near as easy as it looked.
The conditions I’m working in are bloody awesome though, and I actually haven’t blogged about them since they all transpired.
In summary, early this year I signed a two-book deal with the legends at Text Publishing. I was so stoked. My agent, Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary, pitched The Brink and there was a bidding war between two publishers, which had me practically pissing my pants with excitement. Both publishers were amazing and I could’ve happily signed with either (a good problem to have), but the incredible team at Text were the right fit at this stage in my career and I was so heartened that they really understood my voice and who I am as an author, and wanted to nurture it.
More pragmatically, they gave me a bunch of CASH. Yeahhhh boi! The advance was very nice, and meant I could make a go at being a full-time author, which has been my dream since I was seven. It was an epic moment of arrival.
I got to work fast: I had to deliver the structural edits of my second novel, The Brink, by the end of August this year (the book will be published August 2022). With no day job to distract me, I worked quicker than expected, submitting the edited manuscript to my publisher by mid-July – six weeks ahead of deadline.
At the time, I think I knew there was a rumbling unease in me, because I made sure to labour the point to my publisher: please don’t get used to me being early with deadlines.
On one hand, it’s just solid business sense to under-promise and over-deliver. Plus, deadlines in the publishing world are (tacitly) made to be broken, and most of us realise that as we get a little further into our career. As Douglas Adams famously said, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’
That said, I had no intention of not sticking to my next deadline – but I had the vibe it wasn’t going to be easy.
After finishing The Brink, I was meant to go straight to work on Book Three, a contemporary novel for adults. I’d already completed the first draft in May 2020, so it was a case of reworking the story into a stronger second draft, to be delivered to my publisher by the end of November this year.
But once I was done with The Brink, I felt immediate resistance to my third book.
At the time, I rationalised it as me needing to take a bit of breather. After all, The Brink is really fucken intense.
So, since I was well ahead of schedule, I decided to take a short break.
I sat with my master list of planned creative projects and thought about which project I could tinker with as a light distraction. I could play with ideas for my fourth book – the intended sequel to Invisible Boys. I could return to a fantasy novel. I could add to my nearly-complete short fiction collection.
But none of those ideas appealed, because they all required emotional investment: writing them meant dredging up feelings.
Ah, there was the rub: I did not want to deal with real shit.
Once I understood that, my path forward was clearer. I started a new, fun project I have no intention of finding a traditional publishing home for: an eight-part novella. I am writing it purely for the love of writing and the world it’s set in.
That worked. For a few weeks, I wrote fast and had fun. I laughed. My main character is a smart arse. I like his voice and how he’s a brat.
But once I reached chapter six, I slowed down, then ground to a halt. I didn’t want to finish the novella, cos once it was complete, I’d have no excuse to not work on Book Three.
This is the nebulous shadow that’s been lurking in the corner of my eye, a truth I’ve been avoiding: I am very scared of writing my third book.
And it’s not for the reasons I might’ve expected.
It’s not the weight of expectation of writing a follow-up to a successful debut (I already went through that shit with The Brink – and that pressure was not fun).
It’s not about the shift to writing for an adult audience (most of my readers are adults anyway, and those who are older teens will be adults by the time this third book is published).
It’s not even about the premise of the story itself (I reckon it’s killer and people will love it – I hope so, anyway!).
No, the fear is the real shit I am going to have to deal with in order to write it.
The only way writing a novel works for me is if it is a vehicle to tell my own truths. The end product is made-up characters and an invented plot for others to connect with, but the seed from which a book germinates is always my own lived experience.
Invisible Boys was an exorcism of the teenage shame that left me psychically pockmarked; The Brink is a coming-of-age novel about being a misfit and what it means to want to burn yourself down.
The difference with these first two books was how much distance I had from them. The Invisible Boys are sixteen; the protagonists in The Brink are eighteen. I’m thirty-three now and although I am intimately present in both books, and writing them changed me massively, they are tackling older wounds from my younger years.
My third book is different. It’s about where I am now. I’m reflecting on what has happened since the Saturn Return of my twenty-ninth birthday. This book is about identity and relationships, conformity and individuality, acceptance and abandonment, abuse and escape, liberation and fallout. It is about what happens after the dust has settled.
During these past four years, there have been so many public highs, career-wise, that I know many people’s perception of my life is that it is charmed and that I am lucky. Professionally, they are probably correct.
But there have been many enormous unseen lows in my personal life which has made for such a schizophrenic four years in that regard. Almost every time I was being applauded or congratulated for something going well in my career, I was privately devastated by stuff going on in my personal life.
The truth of the last four years is that they have simultaneously been the best and worst four years of my life.
To write this third book, I have to take my blinders off and look at this time, and where I have landed now, with no illusions. I am going to have to write in real time about my present condition and ask myself: Where the fuck am I now? Who the fuck am I now? What the fuck am I even doing here? When I’m not telling my social media followers that I’m stoked and pumped about this achievement or that – how do I really feel?
Despite everything I’ve learned about making space for all emotions, this year I’ve still fallen into the trap of trying to keep a lid on how shit I’m feeling. Out of some sense of being grateful for what I have, or not wanting to seem negative, or not being an artist having an existential meltdown while the world is a fucken tyre fire.
Anyway, that’s bollocks and I should’ve known better. The world remains a tyre fire whether or not I add my kerosene to the blaze.
And I know the only path to feeling happy personally is the same path to feeling fulfilled professionally: I need to be expressed in writing in an honest and unfettered way. No pretending I’m fine when I’m not. No bullshit.
That’s all it takes.
My resistance to Book Three was not without merit, though. One thing I’ve learned, repeatedly, is you can’t write about something if you’re still going through it.
I’ve been grieving a lot of stuff for four years – broken relationships, rejection from tribes I thought I belonged to – but I’ve been treading water, impotently pinballing between denial and anger. After finishing the first draft of this book, I segued into the bargaining stage of this colossal relational grief. I was scrabbling around a dark cave, blindly looking for an exit that did not exist. Maybe if I always do x, and I never do y, then I won’t need to lose this person or that person from my life.
The bleedingly obvious truth is that no healthy relationship requires you to contort and suppress yourself in order to be tolerated. There was never a way out of that cave. Separation and departure were inevitable if I was to survive intact.
My task now is not to escape the cave, but to accept that it is where I live, and learn to allow my eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Although painful, I’ve recently been able to end that onanistic bargaining stage, which means I’ve now landed squarely in depression.
At the moment, most days, I feel lonely, isolated, burnt-out and bleak. I am often empty; sometimes I feel like a husk. I remind myself this is temporary and a part of the process, and although it sucks big hairy donkey balls, I can cope with it and it won’t finish me off.
But it’s still not the place to write a friggin novel from.
So, I’ve decided to pause this book until I’m in the right headspace for it. I’ve negotiated with my (very understanding) publisher to deliver Book Three at the end of March 2022 instead.
I feel like I’ve become one of those authors taking a while between new projects, though rest assured I am not swanning around in my author mansion (mostly because I do not have a mansion; I live in the hood yo). I’ll still be hectic with workload – finishing my novella, copy edits for The Brink, all the other busy paid work of being an author, plus several unannounced projects underway.
But when I’m not working, instead of mining my deepest darkest for nuggets of literary gold, I’m gonna chill the fuck out, man. I’m gonna stop putting my brain and my heart under the artistic microscope for a couple of months. I’m gonna spend the rest of this year living, chilling, processing, doing normal humanoid stuff and letting myself naturally shuffle from depression to the final stage: acceptance.
I think this rest is an essential part of the creative cycle.
Next year, I’ll return to Book Three, and enjoy writing for what it is: an alchemical confession box, a lightning rod of catharsis and expression, and the best medicine I know.
The first time it happened was two weeks into my book tour.
At the end of my author talk at a library in Perth, a well-intentioned (and very nice) audience member asked a question that got under my skin.
She asked how I felt about becoming a role model.
I was immediately horrified by this question, and I told her so. I explained that being held up as a paragon of anything was anathema to me, and I wasn’t interested in that kind of public role.
But, she insisted, my example would be of interest to gay people, to young men, to people in general. She had just heard me talk about sexuality and shame, masculinity and identity, mental health and self-care. She thought these were important conversations.
I agreed. These themes are central to my book and my work. But I didn’t want to be seen as exclusively positive and wholesome. That terrified me.
The promo cycle for the book rolled on, and the “role model” question came up again and again – and continues to.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a super nice thing to have said to you. And I learned to be more courteous in my response. I didn’t want to come across as a completely ungrateful prick. After all, not long ago a man like me would have been derided, scorned, barred from events at schools; go far back enough and I would’ve been locked up.
So, “role model” is hardly a slur. It just made me intensely uncomfortable.
Once I looked up the meaning of the term – a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy – I thought, okay, that’s not so bad. If a closeted teenage boy could look at me and see there are many different ways of being homosexual, and that gave him something tangible to shape himself in accordance with, okay, fine. If that helps someone, fine.
But the terror has never gone away, because most people don’t just want a ‘role model’.
They want a good role model.
That’s the term that makes me want to run away.
A ‘good’ person behaves well and conforms to the norms and customs of society, and, to be frank, the norms and customs of western culture in 2021 are fucking horrible.
Being a good artist, or a good gay man, in this era, carries particular behavioural expectations. I have learned this from interactions over the past few years, and even in just the past week. I am expected to speak and behave in a certain way; effuse a certain toxic positivity and purity; project my morality and politics publicly; call out and be outraged by any fellow artist or gay deemed even slightly problematic, while never being deemed problematic myself. I am tacitly expected to become an activist by default – not just in my art either, but in a vitriolic, showy way on social media.
My sense is that in 2021, to be in the public eye, to be a minority in the public eye no less, is to be held to an excessively high standard of performative virtuous behaviour, bordering on squeaky-clean, lemony-fresh perfection.
This is sick.
That pressure to be “good” for the public is deeply unhealthy. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is even that crash hot. It’s human nature to be kind of nice but also sometimes a piece of shit. To pretend otherwise feels so disingenuous. We are all made of dark and light, shadow and persona.
This is particularly true of artists. We are often damaged people. We have a tendency to be mentally ill, addicted, traumatized, sensitive, troubled. I am all of these things. Most artists and writers I know are, too, to varying degrees. This side of our selves often informs much of our art, and explains why we can be navel-gazing and temperamental at the best of times.
And the thing is, this drive for perfect behaviour sets me off because I’ve been there. I am proof of why it’s a terrible idea to pretend you are pure; when you let the persona take over and try to perform virtue for the world, in order to obtain safety, love, popularity, relevance, group acceptance, validation, or whatever it is you’re seeking.
This happened when I was a teenager. I was a big homo. I nearly killed myself because I grew up in a place, time, culture, class, religion, and family setting where homosexuality was a shameful thing. But also, I kept that stuff – what the world around me had deemed evil and sinful – hidden and private. Externally, I tried to become the paragon of a moral Catholic boy in as many ways as I could: praying to God, writing to God, studying the bible, wearing my crucifix, being straight, parroting Catholic views like they would undo what was going on in my heart.
I worked hard, and constantly, to be a performatively virtuous person. It obliterated my own sense of identity, my own humanity, and drove me to the point of suicide.
Thankfully, I didn’t kill myself. I got help from an anonymous mental health service, which saved my life.
I then wrote a book about my experiences. And the underlying message of that book was not just that it’s okay to be gay (although – spoiler alert – it is).
The point is that trying to conform to the world’s estimations of what makes a good person is an unhealthy and self-destructive endeavour. If you give yourself over to what the world thinks of you, you will lose yourself.
In the acknowledgements of my book, I wrote about my troubled teenage self; how my key lesson from having gone through a suicidal level of self-loathing is that I am good enough as I am.
It feels like a dereliction of duty for me to not, then, defend this idea in public, as well as in my art. There is a vexing misunderstanding that the thing that nearly killed me was homophobia. It wasn’t.
What nearly killed me was shame.
It was shame, thrown by others, internalised within me. Shame for being human, for being myself, for not being perfect, for being slightly bad. The world told me I was bad for being homosexual. I felt ashamed for it. The shame slowly destroyed my will to live.
Becoming painfully well-behaved, performing morality and flawlessness to please those in positions of authority, was the best thing I knew to do to survive at the time. But it made me sick, and I know it drives many to an early grave.
I have spent years clawing my way back from that teenage precipice. I have learned not to abandon myself, but to stay with myself. I have learned that all the shame an entire planet can throw at me cannot and will not divorce me from the knowledge that I am, at my core, okay.
Nowhere in that process of un-internalising that shame did any therapist suggest I start throwing shame back at those who had hurt me. Why would I hurt people the way I’d been hurt?
When I came out in 2008, Western culture seemed to be moving towards becoming less judgmental, less shaming, more tolerant of difference. A world more interested in living and letting live.
That idea feels laughable in 2021. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the human need to shame and punish one another supersedes any dogmatic Abrahamic religion. We currently live in a culture of permanent outrage: those we disagree with are not humans to be tolerated, but enemies to be called out and destroyed. We are not encouraged to be kind.
The crux is: my sense is that to be seen as a role model in this era would be to support and reify shame. I would be buying into a reductive, unkind system that is quite as crushingly inhumane and airless as the deeply moralistic one that almost killed me. I know how destructive that is. I know how many people take their lives because of shame. Everyone carries their own burden, often in silence. Throwing shame is destructive; internalising that shame can be fatal.
So, I won’t do it.
Trying to mould myself into who I think people want me to be would be unhealthy. My career might gain more relevance if I started ranting about sociopolitical minutiae on Twitter, but the gratification of those retweets would be cold comfort for my impaired wellbeing.
This culture has plenty of artist-activists. I don’t want to be one of them. Just “artist” is cool with me.
And I can make my peace with being a role model if that helps someone, but I would very much like to not be a good one.
I think I now understand why that original question bugged me so much. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t want to be misread. Not after having gone through some dark shit on my way to get where I am. I feel that misrepresentation would wreck me.
So, if, as my career grows, I’m going to be held up as an example of something, let it not be model behaviour.
I’d rather be an example of being flawed; of being an imperfect person in an imperfect world; of cutting yourself some slack; of being allowed to be a bloody human being.
In a culture addicted to toxic perfection, and an era so unforgiving toward human nature, I don’t believe it’s just okay for artists to show these flaws. I reckon it’s vital.
We’re all familiar enough with why 2020 was a giant tyre fire. Thankfully, it looks like the tide is turning. 2021 will hopefully (*touches wood repeatedly*) be a better year.
Every December, I reflect on the past year and plan for the one ahead. When I made my 2020 goals, I had no idea what was about to unfold. Consequently, many of my goals – like everyone’s – went to hell.
Weirdly, my career thrived in 2020. I don’t take that for granted. Invisible Boys landed a slew of accolades, culminating in winning the WA Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer in August. I also signed with a new agent for my next books, and sold the film and TV rights for Invisible Boys, which is now in development as a ten-episode TV series. This stuff was fucken awesome, especially against the backdrop of a heinous year.
That said, despite the luminosity of career highlights, this year was a bit of an annus horribilis for me personally. I started the year with an injury, dislocating my shoulder for a second time, which derailed my health and fitness for months. The gym and footy do a lot to keep my head above water, and losing both was a major struggle. After that was a two-month lockdown, financial strife as my income dried up for the year, the death of a family member, a car accident that injured my back, a house flood and insurance battles, then a very public legal quagmire. From January through to December, my mental health was the worst it’s been in ages. This stuff was fucken terrible, especially against the backdrop of a heinous year.
The mix of light and dark in 2020 was starker than in most years, and there was a chasm between people’s perceptions of how good my life must be and how shit I actually felt. But upon reflection after a strange year, I have my health, I have my husband, I have a career I love, and I live in a relatively safe part of the world. I am lucky.
And despite a year of thwarted dreams for many, people across the globe are arming themselves with the usual December hope that next year will be better. I share this hope. Setting goals helps me take stock of how far I’ve come and refocus my energies. Looking back and looking forward is how I stay motivated.
So, I set 10 goals for 2020, split between writing goals and personal life goals.
Here’s how I went:
2020 WRITING GOALS
1. Sign a contract for Book 2 and do edits for that.
Well, this didn’t happen. My first agent left the publishing business, and so I signed with a new agent mid-year: the brilliant Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary. Gaby requested edits to the manuscript, and this led to an extensive rewrite. Technically, I did sign a contract with my agent for Book 2, and I did do edits for it. But the goal was to sign a contract with a publisher, which hasn’t yet happened. Book 2 will be pitched to publishers in 2021.
Result: FAIL (but PROGRESS).
2. Promote IB until it has been flogged to death (NB: may have already happened).
I reckon I did what I set out to do here. Despite the pandemic leading to the cancellation of loads of gigs, including events and festivals over east, I still landed a bunch of gigs, many of them online, to sustain myself and promote the book. There was loads of media to promote the book and heaps of good word of mouth. I worked hard on this one, and I achieved my goal.
3. Get 1 piece of short fiction & 1 piece of journalism published.
My short story “Irreversible” was published in a special edition of Westerly in February 2020, so I got the first part done. However, the journalistic piece eluded me. I did have an offer of a commissioned piece mid-year, but I had to turn it down as the deadline was impossible given what I was juggling at the time. I enjoy writing articles, though, so I’ll keep this on the backburner for the future.
Result: HALF SUCCESS, HALF FAIL (note to self: don’t put two different goals in one next time).
4. Start work on Book 3.
This is one goal the pandemic actually made easier. I didn’t just start Book 3 – I wrote the whole thing in five weeks while we were in lockdown in April-May. I have hardly glanced at this manuscript since I finished it and I feel I’ve really benefited from staying away from reading it for more than six months. I’ll have a fresh perspective when I dive into rereading and editing it in 2021.
5. Super Secret Project X!!!
This referred to the adaptation of Invisible Boys as a film or TV series, which I was having conversations about last December but hadn’t yet signed a deal. In August, we announced these rights were optioned by Nick Verso and Tania Chambers, and earlier this month, we received development funding from Screenwest. I am so stoked the TV series is going into development in 2021 and can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
2020 LIFE GOALS
6. Maintain average 5 workouts per week (weightlifting and cardio).
Somehow, I actually managed this. For most of the year it was 6 days per week, helped by the fact that footy counts as cardio. There were some crap weeks where I only exercised two or three times, but overall I maintained a steady level of regular near-daily fitness this year and I’m proud of that. I want to keep going with this into 2021.
7. Shred up & reach goal weight of 73 kg by 30 June 2020.
Not sure whether to laugh or cry at this one. I weighed 86 kg when I made this goal. Despite exercising like a muthafucka all year, I also started comfort eating and drinking bulk alcohol during lockdown. By July, I was 87 kg – even heavier than December. I got my shit together in October, gained some muscle and lost some fat, and consequently weighed in at 83 kg last week. Considering the year I had, this is good progress, but still a far cry from my ambitions of major shreddage.
Result: EPIC FAIL.
8. Get tattoos – July 2020. 😊
This goal is also in tatters. The plan was get ripped, then get inked. I haven’t achieved the first so the second hasn’t followed. Bum-bow. I know I can get tattoos whatever my body shape, but my vain heart wants what it wants.
9. Train harder at footy, get less shit & play at least 1 whole AFL 9s season with the Hornets.
Despite my injuries, I trained harder at footy than in 2019. I played a whole season of AFL 9s with the Hornets, save for a couple of games when I had work. And I ultimately got a bit less shit: I am still not a stellar footy player, but I’m better than I was twelve months ago. I can only try to keep improving and hopefully, over time, become a more useful and competitive player.
10. Do 1 whole term of guitar lessons (10 weeks).
Okay, this one completely fell by the wayside. I was too busy to dedicate time to this every week for a whole school term. I do still really want to learn guitar, though.
Ultimately, I succeeded at about half my goals and failed at the remaining half. That’s a pass mark overall, right?
I am not fazed by the failures. Every year, I set goals knowing I will achieve some and fall short of others. This is the nature of goal setting and life. It doesn’t stop me enjoying the process of aiming high and it helps me work out which goals I don’t feel passionate about and which I really want to work harder at next time.
2020 hampered a lot of my goals, so my list for 2021 looks very similar, with some minor tweaks:
GOALS FOR 2021
1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.
2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.
3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).
6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.
7. Get first tattoos in 2021.
8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.
9. Do at least one guitar lesson.
10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.
When I look at these goals, I feel strongly about making them all a reality. I’ll do my level best. I love having goals to chase and I can’t wait to get started on all of these.
What are your goals for 2021? Are they focused mostly on career, or on life, or a mix of both?
Like most writers, I have been sculpted by failure far more than success.
One failure in particular has always hurt me, because it was the first.
It was only tonight, here in 2020, when I was in the middle of judging a writing competition myself, that I reflected on this failure and realised it may not have been what I thought it was.
I’ll set the scene, Sophia Petrillo style. Picture it: Sicily, 1912.
Or, more accurately, picture it: Geraldton, 2000. An eleven-year-old Holden Sheppard submits a short story to a writing competition for the first time in his life. It was an original mystery/detective story in the style of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books I was devouring from the primary school library at the time.
I had, at this point, been actively writing in my spare time for three years. There was almost nothing emotional or powerful about any of my writing, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a boy of my age. I knew I was a capable writer and that it was one of my strengths.
I wrote my piece, and even drew a small illustration of the story’s crime scene on the bottom of one of the pages. This was twenty years ago, so nothing was digital – hard copy was the only option – and this wasn’t the adult world of publishing, this was primary school, so everything was also handwritten.
I can’t remember what the competition was, but I know it was only for young writers, and I think it was across the whole of Western Australia.
A while later, the competition results were being announced with the stories entered being put on display at the Geraldton Regional Library. I went to the library and hunted excitedly for my story on the display. Had I won? Had I been placed second or third, or highly commended?
I had not.
My story not get any kind of placing or recognition whatsoever.
Worse, what I remember is seeing my story with a number written on it in pencil. From memory, it was #125.
I remember, vividly, feeling sick with disappointment. I have a vague recollection of one of the library staff telling me and my mother that there were something like six hundred entries. I have a much sharper recollection of all the adults present looking at me with what felt very much like schadenfreude. I felt it like a wave of psychic energy. Kid thinks he’s some kind of writing genius, huh? That’ll take him down a peg or two.
I felt deeply embarrassed. I called myself a writer and had been working towards that for three years, only to have my first public attempt at writing deemed, effectively, a piece of shit, in front of my family, and the teachers and parents at the school, and my peers, who could all publicly see where my story had ended up. A hundred-and-twenty-fifth? What humiliation.
And amid that sense of shame was a sense of anger and injustice. Okay, maybe my story wasn’t good enough to win, I thought, but it was not a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth level bad. Was it?
Like any writer who cops a rejection, I wondered what I had done wrong. Was it the illustration that made the judges think I was just a dumb kid? Maybe it was supposed to be typed and printed instead of handwritten? Was my story just too derivative of Donald J. Sobol’s style? I hadn’t plundered his characters or stories: I had written an original piece, just following the same structure and stylings of those (dated) detective stories. Was it because I had set the story in America? Did the judges only want Aussie stories?
There was another fear that plagued me. I wondered if the judges thought I had plagiarised the piece, either by copying an existing story or having an adult write it for me.
The reason this was a fear of mine is that I was accused of it around the same time.
At the start of Year 7, our entire class was given a spelling test called the South Australian Spelling Test. We had to spell seventy words. They started out very simple and grew increasingly difficult.
A few days or weeks later, we were given our results. The mark out of seventy came with a corresponding score of what spelling age you were at. We were almost all eleven years old, so the idea was if you got a score that said your spelling age was 9 or 10, you were below average. 11 would be normal. 12 or over meant above average.
Our teacher – who was new to the school – handed back the tests in reverse order of success; that is, the lowest scoring student got their test results back first. I can’t remember if the teacher announced the scores aloud as he did this, but it’s quite possible, and likely, given what came next.
My test came back last: I had achieved the highest score. 69/70. I only spelled one word wrong. My spelling age was the maximum possible, which was listed as “greater than 15 years 6 months”.
I felt pretty good about this, until the teacher rounded on me in front of the entire class.
“You cheated,” he snarled. And it was a snarl.
“No, I didn’t,” I replied, absolutely horrified to have a teacher mad at me. I was a painfully obedient child in primary school, oppressively perfectionistic.
“You did. You cheated on this test.”
I denied it again. In fact, I had to deny it several times. I felt sick. This forty-year-old man was furious, almost seething, and hell bent on attacking a scrawny eleven-year-old nerd. I had never experienced anything like this from any adult before. Teachers usually liked me because I was both smart and well-behaved.
“I didn’t cheat. I would never cheat,” I told him meekly.
The other students – surprisingly, some of the worst-behaved students who would, on any normal day, give me shit for being a square – stood up for me.
“He didn’t cheat. He’s just really good at spelling. He’s smart.”
Our teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. “You’ve obviously done this test before and that’s how you knew how to spell the words,” he sneered. “But you got one wrong, didn’t you? Embarrassing.” He grinned down at me savagely. “How embarrassing for you.”
He threw this particular insult at me because the one word I misspelled was “embarrassing”. I spelled it with only one ‘r’. I have never spelled it wrong again in my life.
I offered one more denial of having cheated, and he concluded by threatening me that he was going to tell my parents at the upcoming parent-teacher interviews. And when those interviews rolled around, he did, too. My mother countered by letting him know that I was a bookish, intelligent kid. He still refused to believe me or her.
I learned a lot that day. I learned that teachers don’t always care about their students. I learned that adults can be petty and jealous. I learned that even when you are telling the truth, some people will refuse to believe you.
And I learned that sometimes, people in positions of power will be downright cunts to you, as that teacher was to me, and they will get away with it scot-free, because life is sometimes unfair.
I bring this story up in the context of that short story rejection for two reasons.
Firstly, because it illustrates why I was paranoid enough to wonder if the competition judges, like my teacher, had assumed I’d cheated, or plagiarised my story. Did they seethe at this well-crafted story? “How dare he! He obviously cheated! A-hundred-and-twenty-fifth place for him!”
Secondly, I guess it illustrates why I expected to have ranked a little higher than a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. I was an intelligent kid and an exceptional writer for my age range. I had already written a whole “book” (it was sixty pages) in 1999, so I knew I had some level of ability. I could accept not being first, or in the top ten, but to score so crushingly low amid a field of peers my own age just hurt.
But that lesson from that cunt teacher – that adults can be cruel to children, and life can be unfair – actually helped me.
All writers think we have talent. It is how we get up in the morning and write, because we believe in our hearts that we have the ability to tell stories, and tell them well. From our very beginnings, it is fundamental to our craft that we have a tiny kernel of belief that we are actually good at this. If we didn’t, we would never pick up a pen in the first place.
At eleven, I thought I was talented, and perhaps even I knew I was, but it was not recognised in that competition. Maybe that particular story just wasn’t as shit-hot as I thought. Maybe it was just shit. Maybe there were a hundred and twenty four more talented child writers in my age bracket in WA that year(?!).
Or maybe there weren’t. It was tonight, as I was judging a young writers competition myself, that I not only smiled at the full-circle moment, but also realised how strange it was for judges to rank as far down as one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. Most competitions I’ve judged, we judges decide on a longlist or shortlist, but that’s never more than say twelve or fifteen entries. It would take forever to do a detailed ranking beyond that. In light of this, I find it hard to imagine that all six hundred of those entries back in 2000 were individually ranked. Tonight, it occurred to me that the number scrawled in pencil on my entry was simply its number: entry number 125. I had a laugh about this with my husband, but then immediately went back to being quite sure it was indeed a ranking, because writer egos are like this: the self-doubt usually wins out.
In any case, it’s ancient history, and I’ll never know why I ranked so badly in that competition, and I still, to this day, feel sore and cheated by it – unduly screwed over.
But what I am proud of is how this failure shaped me. I did feel hurt, and yes, it was embarrassing.
But I didn’t stop writing.
That first rejection, the sinking-through-the-floor moment of standing in that library and trying to politely smile as I discovered, in front of others, that I sucked, only made me work harder towards becoming a better writer. I trained so hard. I read voraciously to get a sense of how published books sounded. I wrote more stories in my exercise books, and then began to post them online to an audience, who gave me invaluable feedback on how I could improve. I routinely studied the dictionary and thesaurus to expand my vocabulary and challenged myself to use those new words in my stories. I decided I would not stop until I had the recognition I craved.
It would be a long road ahead. Five years of hard work until I scored second place in the Randolph Stow Young Writers Award. Nine years until my first short story was published in a literary journal. Seventeen years until I won my first writing-related award. And nineteen years until my first book was finally published.
There have been many more rejections since that first one, and as a ratio, many more rejections than successes, even now. But that first rejection – and that first cruelty – hardened me in a way that helped me, and shaped me into the man I am today.
I’m thinking about the young people who entered this competition I’ve just finished judging. I wonder if the winners will go on to be writers. I would certainly encourage them to do so, heartily, if it’s something they want. But did the winners in the year 2000 go on to become published writers? I don’t know who they were or what they ended up doing. But I do know that the boy who landed at a dismal #125 was the one who was driven enough to make it in the long run.
I wonder if there is a teenage writer in this competition I’ve just judged who didn’t make the shortlist. One who wants to be a writer more than anything, one who will be devastated to have missed out, who will spend years wondering why they weren’t good enough, or thinking me cruel for having overlooked their talent.
If there is, I hope this rejection lights a fire in them like it did me. I know now that we learn more from being burnt than we do from being congratulated.
And while the flower that blooms in a fertilised garden is beautiful, the one that grows out of ashes is unstoppable.
PS. Although I did entertain the notion of naming my Year 7 teacher in this blog post, I won’t. I’m not really interested in revenge and besides that, I don’t need revenge because I feel like I won the first time. I was the calm, rational kid who didn’t do anything wrong, and he was the bullying adult who was not only deeply in the wrong but, objectively, a cunt of a human being. I will leave it to the universe to give him some solid karma.
Plus, to be frank, I’m pretty sure the only reason he lost his shit at me was because he got a lower score on that spelling test than an eleven-year-old boy. How embarrassing for him! 😛
About three years ago, during a time of massive failure, I went back to my uni to visit my writing lecturer.
At the time – early 2017 – I had both lost my full-time job and had to abandon my failure of a fantasy novel. From every angle, I felt like a loser. I wanted my lecturer’s advice, and comfort, and to try to recapture that student feeling that dreams could come true.
As I told my lecturer about my book’s inability to interest agents, and how I realised my novel wasn’t good enough, I tried to find a way to fan the flames in my chest into words.
“I’m going to make it,” I told her, resolutely.
“I know you will,” she replied.
No, she wasn’t getting it, I thought. I wasn’t just some writing student who sort of wanted to get published. This wasn’t just a career that I may or may not proceed with. This was my life. This was almost the only thing in the whole world that I cared about. This was the only way I made sense as a fully-rounded human.
“I mean I won’t stop until I make it,” I elaborated. “No matter what. Even if I have to write a whole new book, even if I have to self-publish first before I can get a traditional publishing deal, even if it takes me years and years, the rest of my life, I will get there.”
“I believe you,” she said, with an ‘ease up, turbo, or I’ll press the duress button’ kind of look.
I remember that day, and that era, as the point where I kicked my ambition up a notch.
Ambition had always been the undercurrent of my personality, since the age of seven, when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. I am not ashamed of my ambitious nature. I am proud of it, actually. It would have been easy to give up on this dream at an early age. A boy from a blue-collar background in a country town doesn’t have the most inspiring pedigree for a literary career. In order to become a bona fide published novelist, I had to reach beyond my station in life, defy expectations and obstacles, and keep going in the face of many years of scorn, disinterest, rejection and abject failure.
Ambition – that craving to get the thing I wanted – is what pushed me to persevere and rise above all of that. I believed – and still believe – that if you want something dearly, and work hard for it, you can eventually achieve it. I am living proof of this approach.
But at that particular time, I knew standard ambition wasn’t enough. I had to move to a total war, scorched earth approach to achieving my dreams.
So I did.
I doubled down on my ambition. This was the only way I could pick myself up from what is probably the nadir of my career so far; if I did not fight back and push on twice as hard, I would have crumpled.
This blind ambition moved me through a hard time, and made me achieve a lot. It made me dig deep and write about something real: my novel Invisible Boys was born from this process and was written in the winter of 2017.
Moreover, my blind ambition spurred me on to do more than just write. It made me get on social media and work hard at building a platform. It made me cut way back on socialising and prioritise the hustle. It made me treat my day jobs as secondary, so I was author first, worker second. It made me quit smoking, take up exercise, eat better, lose weight, push myself out of my comfort zone. It helped me get what I want and it made me increasingly happy.
As my dreams began to come to fruition, winning awards and landing a publishing contract, I started to think about where I was going.
In 2018, I wondered how I would measure success, and the best metric I had was unemployment. That is, the day I can quit my job and live off my writing full-time, I would have made it.
In both of these reflections, my only metrics for success were the continued pursuit of my dreams. On one level, I don’t really have a problem with this. In 2018, I wrote how a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, sums up my approach to life:
“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.
The paragraph above is ripped word-for-word from my 2018 post, and still sums up how I feel. So, I guess I’m still blindly ambitious, although perhaps I’m using that term too liberally. Some people would interpret blind ambition as compromising your values to get what you want, stabbing people in the back and walking over their corpses to climb a career ladder, shouting “don’t you know who I am?” – that kind of shit. I haven’t done that, ever. (Well, okay, I have said the last one, but only as a joke, I swear!)
And while I’ll continue to be ambitious, something cropped up recently that made me think more deeply about what I want.
It started when I interviewed Natasha Lester at Perth Festival in February, and she talked about becoming a New York Times bestselling author. When her publicist said, “you can check that off your bucket list”, Natasha replied that she had never had it on there in the first place. (In a bit of a boss move, however, she did then jot it down and cross it off, just so she could say she had – ha!)
That interview drew my attention to the idea of a bucket list – the list of things you want to do before you die. Then, a few months later, I was filling out a player profile for my AFL 9s team, The Perth Hornets – a social media “get to know your player” thing. One of the questions was “what’s your top bucket list item?”
Well, I don’t have a bucket list, I thought. I just want to make a living from writing.
But that goal begged a question: before I die, how do I want to live? What would I actually do with that full-time writer living if I achieved it?
My worker bee response to this was this: keep writing.
And this is where I discovered the downside of blind ambition. For all the success this approach has yielded, it has also left me stunted in my focus. I am a blinkered thoroughbred horse and I cannot see anything but the finish line of this enormous race I trained myself for.
On my player profile, I wrote my top bucket list item as:
“Owning some rural land with my dream ute and dirt bike – that’s it!”
Not super exciting, but it was my first, unfettered response, so I wrote it and moved on with my day.
But then a couple of things happened that brought my own mortality sharply into focus.
Firstly, my uncle died, far too young. He was a good man, and I care deeply about him and his family. I returned home to see my relatives, and attend his funeral. I delivered the eulogy, and as I rehearsed it, I was struck by how contented my uncle was with his life. Not only was he a kind, gentle and good-natured man – he was content. He worked hard as a bricklayer to provide for his family, but also to provide for himself. He enjoyed his life. He was at his happiest sitting on the balcony of the dream house he built for himself and his family, having his morning coffee and overlooking the spectacular cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean.
The second thing that happened was that I was in a car accident a few days ago.
It was, thankfully, not fatal. My car was stationary at the back of a long line of traffic on the freeway at peak hour, and the car behind me just didn’t stop – he ploughed directly into my Commodore and smashed it beyond repair – it’s a write-off. I was in shock and apparently responding quite slowly to paramedics and had back pain and whiplash, so I was taken to hospital by ambulance and wasn’t allowed to move my head or neck or spine for hours until they had done scans.
According to the X-rays, nothing was broken. I was released to go home and heal my back – which would be sore and stiff for a while, they said – and to take care of myself mentally and emotionally – which is expected to take longer. But all things considered, I appear to be okay. Hopefully there won’t be any long term impacts.
When we left the hospital, my husband (author Raphael Farmer) asked me if I’d had any revelations. Had the accident made me see life differently? I was alive, but that was pure luck: if the other car had been going faster, that might have been the end of me.
When I imagine my death, I see myself very old and grey, in bed with Raphael, and we both die in our sleep at the same time, peacefully and never having to mourn the other. This is what I hope for. But that night, had things gone worse, my death might have been in the twisted metal of a Holden Commodore on my way home from having San Churros with a mate, my last thought about how frustrating peak-hour traffic is on the Mitchell Freeway.
To say this was merely sobering is the same as saying 2020 has been just been a little challenging.
I told Raphael that no, I hadn’t had any great shake-up in terms of my life direction. Laying on that stretcher, I realised I am already living the life I want, which is reassuring. I have a husband I love, and who loves me; I have a fulfilling career as a writer; I have hobbies and pastimes and sports I enjoy and family and mates whose company I value.
Unexpectedly, the first thing I said to my husband was about a material desire: “I’m going to finally buy my ute.”
Maybe it’s dumb, but because I don’t come from money, and writing is rarely lucrative, I always knew I could have either the dream or the material possessions, but not both.
Blind ambition meant it was an easy sacrifice to make: the dream comes first.
But there are consequences to this way of living. I don’t spend money on my house: I live in a cheap rental in a cheap suburb and I don’t remember the last time I bought any furniture for it. I don’t spend money on my car: I drive (or drove) a cheap sixteen-year-old sedan. I don’t spend money on anything: for years, I haven’t replaced our broken washing machine, or our broken second-hand mattress that hurts our backs every night, or my ancient laptop which is so painfully slow I want to scream and throw it against the wall every time I use it. And so on, and so forth.
It always seemed like a worthwhile trade. Short-term pain for long-term gain. To some extent, it has made my achievements as a writer possible, so I don’t regret that.
But what if achieving a sustainable career as a writer takes another five, ten, twenty years? Would it be worth living a hindered, shitty quality of life for that long if it meant getting more novels published?
Before my uncle passed away, and before my car accident, I would have said yes.
Now, my answer is no.
I’ve been thinking more about how I want to live. Not my goals, but how I spend my day to day life.
So this is what I want, long term. I want to live with my husband on a bit of land – a good few acres, somewhere semi-rural, but close enough to the amenities of the city, where I can write from a writing den in my house and travel to the city/further afield for appearances and gigs. On said land, I’d like to have a dirt bike to ride around on, and I’d love to have my dream ute (a Holden SSV or Maloo).
That’s my bucket list. Everything else is gravy.
The house and land will take time to achieve – and the dirt bike is an extravagant toy.
But since I need a new car now anyway – dammit, I’m gonna get a ute. I’ve wanted once since 2007. It’s unrelated to any sense of achievement. It doesn’t help my career. I just want it for me. I’ve been busting my arse working since I was seven. I think it’s time I got something nice for myself.
I’m gonna find a way to get a new mattress, and washing machine, and laptop, too. Chasing dreams is not pleasurable if I’m running the whole way with holes in my shoes.
I will always be ambitious and hardworking, but the time for unadulterated, blind ambition is, for me, over.
I’ve always been a country boy who wants far more from life than he was ever poised to inherit organically. I still want to achieve big things before I die. I still want to scale this mountain.
But now I’m looking forward to seeing, feeling and enjoying the climb, too.
I’ve worked out why it’s been so hard to write lately. 🧐🧐
I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to or heard from so many other authors who are finding themselves stymied and creatively paralysed in the face of the global catastrophe we are all witnessing playing out around us in real time.
These past few weeks, I’ve been intensely tuned into what’s going on in the world, scouring and refreshing news feeds to find out the latest on this crisis.
But when I focus on facing outwards, it makes it impossible to look inwards. And that’s what I need to do to write. Although I believe good writing comes from scars, this doesn’t mean I need to suffer while I write. In fact, it’s the opposite: I write best when I am peaceful and can comfortably reflect on what’s going on inside, or what happened in the past.
This is why, many years ago, I made the decision not to express political opinions or become a writer-slash-activist. It is not good for me; it inhibits my ability to effect good things in the world through my words and my art. 🤘🤘
I see what’s happening in the world and I have spoken out on the things that matter to me. I will keep doing this when and if I choose. But I cannot make this my default setting. I will be of no use if my headspace is solely one of panic, rage and hypervigilance. I’ll never get any writing done.
So, I’m turning my energy and focus within. 🙏🙏
I’m safe at home for the foreseeable future, so I’ve decided to start my third novel as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in April. I’m aiming to have written 30,000 words by the end of the month.
I’m excited to lose myself in a made-up world again – I doubt there will ever be a better time for that than these coming months. I hope writing this new book is a comfort and panacea for me; and I hope you like it when I can finally share it!
The only way out is through. Take care everyone. ✌️✌️
When I last blogged two months ago, I was able to reflect, with some distance, on the experience of releasing my book. Getting my novel published was wild, joyous, and overwhelming. But most of all, it was big: to see a dream realised after years of longing was monumental.
But then the wheels fell off. Just as I was feeling well-rested and grinning like a boofhead, the comedown pimp-slapped me in the face.
The analogy of a comedown is apt: the thrill of publication truly is ecstatic, drug-like, a rush of dopamine. I could get my fix of validation and attention with new reviews, events, interviews, messages from readers, even social media posts. I spent a few months hitting the good stuff every chance I got – and like any drug, the applause/attention begins to wear off after time. My tolerance threshold increased. It was harder to get that dopamine spurt each time.
And then, of course, once everything quietened down over the summer, I needed my usual fix, but there was no fix to be had.
I’ve spoken to a few authors about this, since I’ve been feeling it, and it turns out that a post-book comedown is as commonplace to the writer experience as caffeine addiction, towering TBR piles and being terrified of the blank page.
And it’s not just about the push and pull of public attention, either. The thrill of publication is more than extrinsic validation. As artists we have our own intrinsic expectations and dreams, independent of other people’s valuations of our artistic output, and just being out there, having a book in the world, is its own reward and excitement. And when that hectic promo tornado breathes its last breath and spins itself into the ether, it can feel like it took all the oxygen with it.
So how did the comedown hit me? My mental and physical health both plummeted. This was compounded by other personal life stuff: a lot of things went wrong at once. For most of January and February, I plunged first into a depressive mood, and then into an elevated state of anxiety that saw me having bloody panic attacks again (I hadn’t had any in ages). Crappy mental health is not new to me, though in the past five years I’ve learned to manage it way better than in my self-medicating twenties. These days, I have better strategies in place and stronger connections to the world that keep me generally well.
But, for various reasons, some of these connections weren’t available to me during this comedown. A shoulder dislocation and other illnesses put me out of action at both the gym and at footy – which are both really important to my physical and mental wellbeing – and I wasn’t able to access my usual therapist during this time.
Long story short: I had a really shit couple of months to start the year.
Thankfully, after hitting bottom comes recovery. I’m back at the gym rehabilitating my shoulder, back to doing some light footy training, and back to seeing my counsellor. Being able to still go to footy training with the boys really helps my mood, and finally lifting some tiny dumbbells with my right arm last week made me ridiculously happy. I’m still many weeks away from being back to normal strength, but it has done me the world of good to know that I am on the upswing again.
Today, I woke up keen to write, which is a great sign that I’m past the worst of this comedown. I really missed the experience of writing in isolation. So much of the past year has been lived in front of other people, which is fun but also requires a different set of skills than writing a novel. I miss being able to lock myself away in my man cave and write a made-up story about made-up people. And that’s what I am now craving.
I handed the second draft of my second novel to my agent in January. This book has taken me much longer than Invisible Boys to write. The actual drafting process each time has been pretty quick – two or three months each time – but there have been many false starts on this project. I first started writing it in early 2014; then again in late 2016; then finally started a recognisable version in early 2018 while at Varuna; and finally finished it last year. It’s been developing on-and-off for six years, which feels like an eon.
My agent and I chatted on the phone the other day. There are some further edits to make, and they are good ones that will make this manuscript what it needs to be. I’ll do them soon, but I’ve also reached the point where I need a few months’ break from book two, or I think I’ll print it out just to set it on fire in a wild artistic rage.
Plus, something more exciting has my attention at the moment.
As I’ve emerged from my comedown, I’ve found my mind percolating with ideas for my third book instead. I wrote the first line for this book a couple of months ago, only because it came to me fully-formed, but I didn’t push it any further. Over the years I’ve learned to feel into the rhythms of my creative bloodflow, and I knew it was too soon to try to push for more words. But these past few weeks, more and more ideas have been coming to me. I’m jotting them down on my phone and emailing them to myself to keep track of them, but the percolating is happening faster and faster and I can feel it reaching a pinnacle, like a kettle coming to the boil. This happens for every book I’ve written. Eventually it builds up enough that I feel compelled to start writing, and I’m getting close to that point.
Today, I opened a word document to jot down a rough timeline of when I want to write this book, and before I knew it, I had working names for my two main characters, and about 500 words of ideas too. I’m getting so pumped about this new book and I can’t wait to write it down in full.
In Marie Kondo terms, this third book is sparking the most joy right now – so I’m gonna follow this bubbling excitement and see where it leads. My priority is going to be writing the first draft of this third novel. Once that’s done, I’ll circle back to edit the second book.
I’d love to share more about both books two and three, but at this stage I reckon I’m better served by shutting up and getting them finished.
The best thing about actively writing new material is that it is some of the best medicine I have ever known when it comes to my wellbeing: writing makes me feel good. This bodes well, because there will be lots of writing in the months ahead.
I can’t wait to share these new stories with you each.
So, I finally got what I’ve spent my whole life wanting.
I’ve mentioned before that I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. It was only about three months ago, at thirty-one, that my debut novel was published.
Such a decades-long journey was a saga in itself, and most of the time it felt as painful, despairing and treacherous as a barefoot trek from The Shire to Mordor.
I had always imagined that final moment of triumph – of being a Published Novelist (TM) – would be a uniquely exhilarated instant. Arms raised to the heavens, chin up, crossing the finish line like a less athletic, more creative, just-as-sweaty Usain Bolt.
My imagination didn’t lie to me: that’s how it felt. It was fucken rad.
Releasing Invisible Boys into the world was a thrill-ride, from the moment I was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in September 2018 until the end of my sixty-day book tour in October and November last year.
The whole thing was a really heady experience. It felt incredible to have finally achieved the thing I set out to do as a young boy. The validation, the sense of completion and the trophy-raising sense of triumph are all so intoxicating I am sometimes scared to dwell on them for too long in case they lose their potency.
There were loads of other joyous moments. Sharing my writing and myself in an honest, open, unfettered way has made me feel more seen and more understood than I’ve ever felt. And since I spent bulk pockets of my life feeling unseen and misunderstood, this has been great for my wellbeing and personal development.
Sharing my story also felt purposeful, because I got to meet and speak with so many people (so many!) who shared their own experiences. Writing this book helped me process trauma, and reading it has helped readers to process theirs. It helped both me and them simultaneously to feel less alone. Altruistically, this is super rewarding.
If the thing humans crave most is connection, and if my soul had only really known societal disconnection since I was a child, then these moments of true connection were a Roman feast for my heart.
But I mean that in the way ancient Romans used to feast: you know, you eat, and eat, and eat, until you are too full, bloated and bursting, and you have to throw up, so you chunder and then you wipe your mouth, stretch out on your lounge and return to your gluttonous feast to keep eating.
It was strange, but so much connection eventually left me feeling like I needed a break. So much visibility made me want to go and hide in a cave until people forgot what my face looked like. I haven’t had any public appearances in over a month now and it’s been the best remedy I could have asked for.
I’m not ungrateful for the success this book has had. I know I am very, very lucky. The sales, critical acclaim and reader responses are all amazing. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s read and supported the book. And the book tour was a mammoth undertaking, and though it was intense, I will never regret doing it.
But that super intense promo period is done.
And now the dust has settled, I’m looking around to find I don’t know where I am. I’ve arrived somewhere I’ve never been. This is foreign terrain; a new land with no map.
Despite knowing better, on some level I thought being a published novelist would revolutionise my life.
I’d heard successful artists talk about this, how achieving your dreams can be amazing but also disillusioning, but I quietly hoped my experience would be different.
For most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I’ve identified with the struggling artist mindset, and it’s made me who I am. I can work hard, achieve, pull all-nighters. I can burn out and recover. I can flail in desperation and pace myself. I can lose faith and think I’m a shit writer and two seconds later think I’m God’s gift to literature. I can withstand people mocking my dreams, telling me I should be an engineer instead, get a big boy job. I can survive people mocking my ambition. I can be dogged and bloody-minded. I can strive for a goal even if it seems impossible and takes twenty-three years.
All of this prepared me for one thing – how to reach my goal – but it didn’t prepare me for what happens after the goal has been reached.
That’s the foreign, mapless terrain I find myself in now.
Achieving a dream does what it says on the box, but no more. I dreamt of being a published novelist; I am now a published novelist, and holy fuck it feels awesome. My whole life, I’ve saddled this desperate thirst for validation, and getting my novel published did quench that. I feel validated in a way I always craved, and I no longer feel that craving, though it’s etched into my skin so deeply I’ll never forget it.
But that’s it. That sense of validation and victory does not inherently resolve any other deficiency or problem in my life. The same interpersonal conflicts, the same tensions, the same lack of money, the same angst, the same cruelty and neglect, the same self-abnegation, the same neurotic shit that belies my hubris … all of it’s still there.
Achieving your goals doesn’t fix you as a person. That is its own beast.
So, what now? Where am I? Where do I go from here? What happens next?
I’ve set some new goals for the year ahead. Firstly, I’ll keep promoting Invisible Boys: there are author talks, interviews and festival appearances lined up all year, thankfully more spaced out than my tour. I’ll also be polishing my second book, which is with my agent currently for her thoughts (and I’m freaking out about it). And this July, I’m planning to do Camp NaNoWriMo again to start my third novel.
Writing this, just now, gives me perspective. I’m no longer striving for these goals because I crave validation. Some of the self-imposed pressure has come off. I’m now writing because (a) these are stories I really want to tell and (b) writing is the funnest thing in the world to me. Upon reflection, this actually seems like a healthier mindset with which to tackle a writing project.
I’m also writing these books because my real dream, which I wrote about in this post about success, is not just to have one novel published. My dream is to be a full-time writer, earning a living off my books. I’m nowhere near that yet; this is the next goal. It may take another twenty-three years. I hope not, but it might, and if does take that long, I’ll survive. This journey has taught me patience, even though the lessons sometimes made me bleed.
And this moment of reflection makes me think back to my teenage self. How I used to lay on the trampoline on our half-acre block in Geraldton, staring up at the sky, thinking how it would feel to finally make it one day. Charlie in my book has this same energy, same desire. Back then, I’d watch clouds cross blue while my dog Ebony, a staffy cross, trotted around nearby. I used to look at the sky a lot, day and night. The full moon transfixes me; my biggest inspiration; the little beacon by which I promised myself, each month, one day I will make it.
The sky is possibility, potential, everything that could be but isn’t yet.
And the sky is my direction; I am climbing a mountain towards it while knowing I will never touch it.
Reflecting and recalibrating, in this moment now, makes me feel good. My first novel being published was the first peak on the way to a much higher summit. And though this terrain is new and uncharted, the ascent so far has given me all the tools I need.
I have the work ethic of a manual labourer who dug trenches in forty degree heat.
I have the doggedness of a struggling writer who took twenty-three years to break through.
And I have the imagination of a fourteen-year-old boy who stared up at the sky every Midwestern summer, dreaming of his mountain.