I remember this moment back in November 2013. I was living at my ex-girlfriend’s house and it was hot and I’d been at home writing all day from 9am to 6pm, not really eating or forgetting to eat, just listening to Clams Casino’s Rainforest on repeat, editing, editing, reading, writing. I’d been getting these headaches from staring at my laptop for so long but I didn’t care or I cared a lot but at that point the pain was manageable and I didn’t know but maybe knew that I was done with my book but that thought seemed terrifying because how can we ever, really, be done with anything? Still, I kept reading. I read and I read. Going over the draft again and again. And eventually the edits went from lots to little then none. Myself: in a chair sweating. And outside our window: Marrickville with planes flying overhead constantly. But I kept working. My eyes: bright red. And sometimes my hand was gripping my leg and other times my hand was in my hair but when it came to that final sentence, that final read through, when I clicked save and turned off my computer, my hands were in my lap and they were gripping each other. They were gripping each other like two lonely kids who didn’t want to be alone.
For a while I didn’t know what to do. Several months earlier I’d entered a section of my book that dealt with growing up in Texas to the inaugural Scribe Nonfiction Prize For Young Writers. The prize included editorial work and cash and free books, but I also felt that maybe if I won Scribe might be interested in the rest of my book and, ultimately, in publishing my book too. So I waited. I worked in a bar at night and I waited. But I also felt myself getting sad. The thought of sending my book for consideration somewhere seemed depressing to me. I don’t know. I’d always focused so hard on the production of the manuscript – writing the chapters, editing, rewriting, rearranging, deleting, writing ending after ending after ending – that when the opportunity came to submit it somewhere it made me want to cry. And, sometimes, I did cry. I guess because of not wanting to let go. This thing, the routine of it, had been part of my life for so long that without it I felt directionless. Unmotivated. So I kept it as a word document on my computer and instead of waking up each morning and going straight to my desk I’d lie in my bed staring at the ceiling sometimes checking Facebook, scrolling, scrolling, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do next.
One night I went with some friends to a reading at UTS and was approached by Fiona Dunne from Seizure. She expressed interest in my manuscript and encouraged me to enter their Viva La Novella 2 competition. I returned to my friends and thought my thoughts. I thought how I’d attended the Emerging Writers' Festival the year before and how I’d watched Jane Jervis-Read, the previous year’s winner, read from and launch her book. I thought about Neil Gaiman and that commencement speech I’d watched nearly one hundred times on YouTube about not losing sight of your goals and I thought about Steve Roggenbuck and how important it was to go hard at the things you love and I thought about Mira Gonzalez and Marie Calloway and Jordon Castro: these young people saying: fuck it, and somehow, despite – it seemed – feeling shitty and scared about life they were investing time and producing things they were proud of. And I wanted that too. But, I don’t know. I felt shitty and scared. All I ever really wanted was to be able to express myself and to feel proud of myself for doing the thing I was doing. So I decided then that I would commit. If other people could do it then I could too. Fuck everyone, I thought. Fuck you and you and you, I said mainly to different parts of my brain. So I submitted to Seizure, feeling conflicted about what would happen if, somehow, I won the Scribe Prize but doing it anyway, because: yeah.
So then a few weeks passed and something happened: I was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize For Young Writers. And a few more weeks passed and something else happened: I was working at this pub cleaning/picking gum from the bottom of a table and even though I wasn’t meant to look at my iPhone I was looking at my iPhone and there it was: confirmation. I had co-won the Scribe Prize. I withdrew my entry from Seizure’s Viva La Novella 2 competition and sat there. And all the things I’d felt earlier⎯feelings of inadequacy, the anxiety that I was a fraud, the anxiety that I would never write again, the anxiety that I’d branded myself as a ‘writer’ and if I’d lost the motivation to write then who the hell was I/why would anyone care – suddenly, or momentarily, went away: large amounts of dopamine releasing in my body, flooding, flooding, my eyes staring at the computer, registering ‘shortlisted’ and then: ‘Oliver Mol’. It felt affirming but it also felt like more than that too. It felt like how the ocean can feel: kind of fuzzy, positive and, at times, warm. It seemed like the start of something. But, at that point, that’s all it was: a start.
When I met with Scribe we went out to lunch and a voice in my head kept saying: This is happening. This is really happening. It felt surreal and wonderful. But it also felt like something else too. Because of how my brain sometimes works and having nothing to do with how Scribe treated me, I felt, to varying degrees, like an extra from the set of a movie who had stumbled into a key scene and who was now being mistaken for the lead role. I ordered a coffee even though coffee gives me anxiety and spoke rapidly about my book. I told them it was a book about growing up in Texas while already being grown in Australia. I told them I felt it dealt with, The Death Of The American Dream in the sense that it catalogued a certain type of life leading up to and including 9/11 while also looking at modern-day Australia. I told them the book was mostly me walking around Melbourne thinking and feeling things except it was also about meeting a girl but mainly it was just funny and dark and it commented, negatively for the most part, on modern day Australia and, oh yeah, it involved the internet a lot. I scrunched up my face and said, ‘It’s largely plotless,’ before pausing and saying, ‘except there is a plot, though.’ Scribe said it sounded experimental, which might be a financial concern, and I told them I understood, except that I didn’t think it was experimental at all, and we agreed that they would read it and that they would get back to me sometime in early 2014. It was December then. So I kept doing what I had been doing. I waited. Working. Writing. Waiting.
Then it was January. There was an email in my inbox. It was from Scribe. The email said this:
Hope you had a great start to the year. I just wanted to write to give you a quick update: Ian and I have read Lion Attack! and are very impressed by it. I really love the energy to your voice, and it feels very contemporary and unique. There are commercial considerations, as I mentioned, so we’ve been thinking about that – how, or whether, it could work for Scribe. I’ve passed the manuscript to Henry, and pending his thoughts, I’ll be able to give you more of an update soon. In the meantime, hope all’s well with you in Sydney. (Good choice to leave Melbourne before the heatwave; we’re all sweltering.)
And so I waited some more. Hoping. Praying. Not to God but to myself. More or less in a positive way though also in a medium to high-level panic attack-y way. I guess trying to build up the whole thing in case it happened so I could really feel it while also trying to dismiss it to protect myself. Putting an invisible something between the idea and myself so that I wouldn’t get hurt.
But then on 30 January it happened. I was home alone and I screamed. I screamed like a dying bird would scream. I screamed like this: HAW HAW HAW. Reading the email over and over. The contract. Reading how they wanted me to sign it. How they liked it. How they liked me. And I’ll never forget that moment. How I sat there. Shaking. Small tears on my face and my hands together, but everything: shaking. I went into the backyard. The table was in the sun. I sat at the table and Skype-d Katia in Colombia. We grinned and grinned and grinned.
So I signed the contract. Over email we discussed the book. Rather than a heavy edit – in terms of removing words, making ideas concise, removing unnecessary characters for the sake of plot – Julia told me she wanted to add ~5000 words to flesh out certain characters. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. I thought: 5000 words? I could knock that out in an evening. Julia asked me when I would prefer the book to come out and I said, ‘As soon as possible,’ but at that point I didn’t really understand publishing. I didn’t really understand copy editing and structural editing and that even though I thought the book was 95% finished I would end up reading and editing and adding to it at least another hundred times. We decided the book would come out in early 2015. I thought: 15 months. I thought: in 15 months I will have my very own book and what in the fuck is going on.
And then we worked. We worked hard. We began with the structural edit. Julia’s main concern was that Bear’s character needed more weight and Lisa’s character lacked a resolution. So I went away and spoke to my brother, whose nickname is Bear. And we talked. We talked about the past, about America and how he felt there. I asked him to send me memories of things that happened and in doing so discovered or rediscovered things that I had forgotten and together we used these to develop his character while in turn damning my own – pleasing the author in me but saddening the human. Then I told Julia that the relationship between ‘Oliver’ and ‘Lisa’ in the book was the same as most people’s in real life. Relationships, I said, when you’re in the middle of them don’t have resolutions. I told her I wanted the book to be as true to life as possible. And she understood that. But she also was concerned with narrative arc and reader satisfaction. And so we debated. Trading ideas. And a lot of the time it was hard. Or frustrating. But it was also healthy too. Two people working on something, coming at it from different angles, and then bettering it.
After this came the copy edit and honestly there were times when I felt like we were crafting and sculpting some beautiful pot or vase together, this object that I’d run my hands over so many times before, whose dents and cracks and rough parts I knew but had intentionally left because they felt more real somehow, and sometimes Julia would ask, ‘Why are these dents here?’ and sometimes I would answer: ‘For rhythm and structure and syntax and please let me keep them please please please,’ and most of the time I was allowed to keep them, but then there were other times when I felt like the book was no longer a vase or a pot but a baby and someone was taking my baby and they were holding it out in front of me and with their free hand they were holding a blade and then they were shaving except they weren’t shaving hair they were shaving skin: flesh falling to the floor, that sinew-y white stuff poking out between the bones, and sometimes there were bigger blades and sometimes there were razorblades but mostly it was hard to tell: mainly because of all the red. But the thing about the red is that it goes away. It goes away. And I would go through the entire process a million times over it meant ending up with the product we did. So thank you, Julia, for pushing me, for constantly questioning me, for all the hours you spent on it. It means so, so, so much.
And then the book was done. It went off to the printers. And for a while I felt like how I had imagined I would feel: liberated, accomplished somehow: happy. But those feelings only lasted so long before the old feelings came back. And once again I felt this incredible anxiety, and in the day I would smile at people at home or at work but in the evenings I would cry, unable to get out of bed, to eat, to discern where the tears were coming from other than that they were there. I guess I felt useless. I guess I felt lonely. I felt like a fraud with no purpose and nothing to work on. At lunch one day I told my friend, ‘I wish I never got my book published. I wish it got rejected because at least then I’d have something to work on.’ And at the time I meant it. I really did.
The other day I saw a tweet by Stacey Teague that said, ‘sometimes i get the sense that i am just pretending to be interested in poetry’ and at first I felt confused. Stacey Teague’s first poetry collection, Takahē, was one of my favourite books of last year. I found it insanely beautiful and sad and honest. Sometimes, or a lot of the time, I relied on it, maybe, like a friend. In this way that I felt like there were things inside it that I needed that I didn’t know I needed. I didn’t understand how Stacey could feel like she was pretending after making me feel so much. So I stared at Twitter. I thought my thoughts. I thought about writing, about why I wrote. And I remembered being maybe 17 or 18. Living in Brisbane. Working at a gelato shop. Going to school. Not really interested in anything other than playing basketball or going to parties. I don’t know. I thought about my friends and how they had all started making music/art or were talking about making music/art and how I wanted to do/make something too. I thought about how I wanted to fit in. And staring, then favouriting, then retweeting Stacey’s tweet I realised that I’d begun writing not due to compulsion or love or something divine and from within but because I was a dumb little boy who wanted to fit in.
And you wanna know something? In many ways I still am that little boy trying to fit in but I’m also okay with that too. I’m okay with that because what else can we really do? I’m trying to cope and so are you. We’re all trying to get through this large, hectic and insane thing together. And, for me, writing helps me through. And more than anything I’ve been incredibly lucky. To have been born privileged. To have met the right people. To have had the time to write. I don’t know. I guess, sometimes, we want more than that though. Some sort of reassurance that it’s not all down to luck, that what our parents and teachers told us was true: that if we worked hard the whole sky would open up and we’d be on a cloud somewhere and beneath us there would be waves and next to the waves long stretches of coastline, that smell of wild grass and melted frost that sat on the tops of rolling mountains mixing in the morning sun and then rising, rising, catching and spiralling in the patterns of invisible thermals, going upwards, upwards, and it would rise beneath us and then pass and we would continue upwards too, all the way up to wherever ever we wanted: the dark night sky and us within it shimmering, c r a c k i n g, e x p l o d i n g⎯
But I’m not sure if I believe that either. So what do I believe in? I believe in you:
Stop thinking. Over-thinking kills everything. Just be a part of what you are doing. Enjoy it. Don’t worry about quality. Make mistakes. Repeat yourself. Then contradict it. Contradicting yourself is probably the most honest thing you can do because it proves that you have no idea what is going on. Write something you think is funny. Make it sad. Play something nostalgic. Play it over and over. Play it ~300 times/day. And remember: none of this really matters. We’re all gonna die soon anyway.