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On Treating Writing as a Form of Play

This post originally appeared on that amazing website Aerogramme Writers’ Studio.

For years before my novel was published, I felt insecure about whether or not I was a ‘real’ writer. I don’t think this is a unique anxiety amongst unpublished authors and I responded to this anxiety in the way I think many people do: I romanticised the act of writing.

I told myself that the burden of writing fiction was thrust upon me and I had no choice but to sit each night and delve into the unknown to produce works of genius. Writing like this didn’t flow easily for me. And as a result, it was hard to read. The prose were pretentious and calculated. It was clear that everything I wrote was me begging the reader to think of me as a genius.

I told myself that if it was easy to write it meant that it wasn’t any good. Good fiction needed to be sweat over. If it was hard, it meant I’d worked at it and it was worthy.

This attitude to writing was one I’d been carrying around in my head since I was a kid. On my weekends and days off, I wrote all day. It was all I thought about. I’d obsess over the stories, especially the syntax, running through sentences over and again in my head until I’d memorised them.

I have a habit of over analysing myself, but I think I obsessed over writing as a childish way to simplify things, as I was not in an emotional position to take on the complexities of life.

It felt safer to focus on this alone, as it meant I didn’t need to focus on many of the pressures of life.

As I’ve spoken about previously, when I started socialising and earning my own money, I found that writing didn’t need to take on the task of carrying my entire sense of self and keeping my anxieties at bay. I felt more comfortable with my life and could relax and have fun with my writing.

As a result, my writing immediately improved, because I was treating it as what it really was, which is a form of play. In not romanticising it, I could allow myself to be crap for a little while and acknowledge that it was something I needed to learn to do, rather than some pure expression that flowed flawlessly through me.

The first short story that I had published was one that I’d ‘let go’ for and allowed myself just to enjoy the writing process. Yet still, even knowing that the healthier approach was to try and enjoy it, I still fell back into old habits.

Shortly after my first short story was accepted for publication, I needed to have a small procedure due to the Crohn’s Disease, which required that I spend a few nights in hospital. Before I began the bowel prep, I received an email from the editor of Voiceworks with the final track changes on my story.

Before I started drinking the solutions, even though I’d been fasting all day, I did the edits on my story. In my head, I marked this as my commitment to writing fiction. It showed how important this was to me, how I would overcome any obstacle to pursue this craft.

In retrospect I see this as deluded and pretentious. I should have just said I was in hospital and asked for a few more weeks on the edits. I’m sure they would have been more than happy to oblige.

I now see that occasion as a lesson in what not to do. I will never force myself to write.

Now I write every few days, while thinking of my stories every day because I want to, not because I feel I have to. If I write until two in the morning it’s because I’m having fun, not because I need to validate that I’m a real writer.

I figure if I want the reader to stay up until two in the morning reading my book, I should be able to enjoy writing it until that time. I realise now that a reader will enjoy reading the novel half as much as I enjoy writing it. I need to glow as I’m writing to know a reader will feel this as they’re reading it.

I find that writing obsessively, telling myself it’s work, a burden that was thrust upon me, snuffs out that sense of fun. And I will produce a novel I wouldn’t even want to read.

On writing fictional characters emerging from real life experiences

This is a slight variation on the speech I gave at the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2014.

I’ve been writing since I was about eight years old. Over this time I’ve developed a very honest, confessional voice, as I’ve found this to be the most rewarding to write and gives me the largest range to explore the themes and topics that matter to me. I’ve always taken writing very seriously as a craft, but I’ve only started thinking of it as a career recently.

A few years ago, I had my first short story published and from then things moved relatively quickly for me. Within a year, I’d had three short stories published and I was talking with an editor about my novel.

For the first time, I started to think that people may actually read my work. What I learnt quickly was that I couldn’t worry about how my work would be received. I get too anxious when I think about it, I start to become calculated with my writing and try manufacturing fiction that will please everyone. I decided to just focus on the craft itself and leave how it was received to those who are receiving it.

So, when people started to talk to me about my work, it was a surprise to me what questions I’d get – particularly when they’d ask me whether or not it was true. In retrospect it’s a pretty obvious to thing for people to ask, considering the honesty of the voice I use.
Like my second story that was published was about an operation I had to have a stoma fashioned and get a colostomy bag. The only true part was that I had the operation. The rest was fiction.

The editor actually sent me an email saying that, she hoped she didn’t offend me, but she wanted to know whether or not my story was actually non-fiction, even though I’d categorised it as fiction.

When I read this same story out at the Wheeler Centre event called Debut Mondays, one of my friends who is there asked me whether it was true. I said no, it is fiction. And she went: ‘really?’.

Now, I know they know I know what these categories of fiction and non-fiction mean and that I’m, you know, capable of categorising whether something’s fiction.

I thought that, perhaps, they thought I was little too embarrassed to admit that these things had actually happened and that I was calling it fiction to hide the fact that it’s true.

The same thing happened with my novel. When I’d tell people it was about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community. I would get asked, understandably, whether I was gay. I would say, no, but it’s based on someone close to me. To which someone said: ‘is that really just you, and your just saying it’s someone else.’

What I’ve come to realise is that these questions are actually the greatest compliments I can receive about my writing, because one of the filters I have whenever I put anything to paper, is that this character could be a real person.

And there’s a hell of work that goes in to authenticating the characters in fiction to give it that feel of truth. I’ll spend months getting into the minds of the characters and gossip about them with my friends as if they were real people. So, we could dissect their motivations and think about them from all different angles.

With my novel, I did set it in the community I was brought up in and in the school I went to. I really was raised religious and the laws and customs within Judaism are all true. I think, reasonably, people may assume that I drew on real life people as well.

But, I felt safe about the book’s reception amongst the people close to me, in that nobody will be personally hurt or embarrassed by me writing it, because there’s nobody who can raise their hand and say, I am that character. And this is because I treated it first and foremost as a work of fiction. Even if I try to base a story on a real person, I find I always move away from the real life person to fulfil the needs of the story.

On How Getting a Novel Published Isn’t Just About Persistence

The post first appeared on www.aerogrammestudio.com.

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was seventeen and was unwell for a number of years. I had an operation when I was twenty-four, which finally awarded me some control over the illness.

With my new found health, I felt like I wanted to ‘start my life’ and decided to start sending my writing off for publication. I had been writing since I was eight years old and had an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing from Melbourne University. But, at this point I’d had no publications.

Things moved fairly quickly for me and within a year, I had three short stories published and was speaking to a publisher about my novel. Although, that specific book wasn’t accepted, the attention from the publisher gave me the confidence to write another one, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, which was accepted by Sleepers Publishing and was released on July 1st.

I’m not mentioning this to show off – seriously. I’m just hoping to show that, at least the way I see it, I had a pretty easy run in terms publication. I didn’t have to push through challenges and keep going despite all odds. I didn’t play out some filmic success story. I just did what I loved and the publishers have done the rest.

I honestly don’t think I have the resilience to handle years of rejection. The only thing that would have gotten me through being constantly rejected would have been a ‘dream’, in that when I get published I wouldn’t have to worry about making friends, or gaining respect, or earning money.

Often when I hear others speak about what the dream of being a writer is – it’s that they get to stay at home, tap away at whatever they’re writing whenever they feel like it, and do whatever they want for the rest of the day.

This isn’t what it’s like to be a writer, it’s what it’s like to not have to work. When I was a younger, I did see being a writer in this way – as an escape from a life of office work. I guess I thought I’d be rich from my writing and receive a lot of validation, so, even if I didn’t ‘do’ anything all day, I could still feel productive and valued.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a large part of the reason I pursued writing was to feel like I’d ‘done’ something with my life. I certainly did and still do feel the pressure to achieve.

Social pressures are very real. So much of our sense of self is built through socializing, to think of ourselves as complete, unattached individuals is a little far fetched.

Personally, I don’t think I would have been okay without addressing these pressures – without pursuing what I love, without trying, without ‘doing something’ with my life.

I’ve met people who don’t seemed fussed about what they do. And I’ve met some who feel uncomfortable being single, while for me, I have no problem with it.

There is never a blanket way we need to live, but I think it’s important we address our personal anxieties and wants in life, even if we can acknowledge that these pressures and wants are social constructions.

Being a writer was something I really wanted and I felt it was crucial I accept that, rather than pretending it’s not something I cared about and growing up to regret never making an effort to build this career.

But, there’s a nasty flip side to this train of thought. In following ‘dreams’, we can become demoralized if we don’t ‘achieve’ them. It also belittles ‘regular’ jobs. To strive for a dream as a writer and then work in an office is considered a failure.

I work in an office and have for a while and will for probably all my life – despite the fact that I’ve published a novel. And I see no shame in it. Yet, every time I got to a literary event, it’s like an unspoken shame to admit that you don’t make any money off your writing. There’s a feeling of embarrassment about it – at least the way I sense it. But, you know, maybe I’m projecting and I’m not as comfortable with my office job as I tell myself.

Anyway, back to it – honestly, if I’d continuously had my stories knocked back, I wouldn’t have kept on trying. I would have stopped sending work for publication, written for myself and become a teacher – something I still think of doing, alongside being a writer.

Sometimes, ‘giving up’ isn’t failing, it’s getting on with our lives and realizing we don’t need the affirmation of the world to feel worthy, we might just need the love of a few. I sometimes think that never giving up is a sign of confidence, while, at least the way I’ve experienced it, whenever I’ve locked myself into a goal with blind determination it’s because I’ve been so desperate to feel accepted.

As I’ve mention previously on this blog that a lot of the emotional needs I was seeking through writing, such as affirmation, acceptance and love, I was far better off seeking from the people close to me.

It seems on the surface that to quash someone’s dream and tell them to be practical, is mean. It’s as if I’m standing on some elevated platform where I’ve ‘made it’, and I’m gloating while telling others not to try. I understand why others would go for it. It really is fun and rewarding being a writer. It isn’t necessarily overrated and, sure, it’s worth a crack. And, yes, some may get published and make a lot of money and earn a lot of respect.

But, to trap ourselves in an endless loop of rejection seems unfair. I know to stop trying when we don’t succeed with something can seem like ‘conformist’ thinking, while pursuing our ‘dream’ against all odds is some sort of liberation and true freedom, a show of strength and confidence in being who we are. But this ‘dream’ business is just a marketing technique, it’s an ideology like any other.

Writing is such a beautiful and inspiring activity. I only feel truly awake when I’m in the midst of a story. Going about my everyday business with constant company of beloved characters, is – not to be too romantic – euphoric. I love the craft of writing – the structure of a story, syntax, character development, metaphor, pacing – it’s all so enveloping and rewarding.

But, the ‘dream’ promise that comes with getting a story published is a whole other thing from the craft. It isn’t real.

Personally, I think we should keep trying to get published for as long as we are enjoying it, remind ourselves that it’s fun and not something that we have to do, take long breaks from it, pursue other interests, pursue relationships and face up to and accept many of the anxieties we may be trying to suppress by focusing blindly on ‘succeeding’, such as, the fact that most of us will need to have a job for the majority of our lives.

I think if I’d kept on trying to get published while being constantly knocked back, I would have become bitter, jaded, reclusive and resentful. And saddest of all, I probably would have learned to hate writing. And, knowing myself, it’s just something I wouldn’t have put myself through.

{Thanks for reading -I just wanted to mention that I was lucky enough to be a guest on ABC Radio National’s program Books and Arts daily last week where I discussed my book and blog. It was an out of studio interview where we went around Caulfield to places I mention in my novel and that have sentimental value to me. Naturally, we started at Glick’s. If you want to listen, here’s the podcast . http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/eli-glasman/5562824

On not romanticizing my anxiety disorder.

A few years ago, when I began on antidepressants that worked for me, I went through a transitional period from being mentally unwell, with O.C.D and depression, to being mentally healthy – in that neither of these illness dominated my life anymore.

Being on medication allowed me to gain control over the anxiety and depression, but it didn’t ‘cure me’ magically. I still needed to adjust the way I saw the world to this slightly altered, less debilitating, perception of things the medication awarded me.

Off the medication, the O.C.D in particular would make me feel trapped in cycles of thought. I felt compelled to follow strict daily routines and was stuck in my ways. Not only did I repeat actions, I would repeat life patterns and find myself in the same situation over and again. I felt too anxious to embrace uncertainty and take risks and as a result, I never took on many of the challenges necessary to building a life.

My shrink would say that what we were attempting to do was ‘unclog the works’, meaning allow my brain to develop, learn and adjust.

The most beneficial thing the medication did for me, was that it allowed me to start socialising again. One thing I discovered in socialising was that a lot of the emotional needs I was hoping to seek from becoming a writer, were actually ones I was better off seeking from other people.

I always thought, insanely in my opinion, that if I didn’t get published my life wouldn’t be worth living. I’d pegged this as the ‘fix’ to everything in my life. Once I got published, everything would be perfect.

Getting published, means you get a lot of praise, which is easy to buy into. Telling myself that I was ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’, meant that even if I exercised potentially damaging actions – sleeping too much, isolating myself, drinking when I was feeling anxious, stopping my medication against medical advice – as long as I wrote novels I could tell myself it was simply the uniqueness of my ‘genius’.

By reaching out socially to others, I quickly felt accepted and loved even without any novels published. A lot of the things I’d fantasized would happen after I got published – such as being able to talk confidently with others and feeling accepted and validated for who I was – happened when I started socialising.

In realising that my happiness would always depend on the people in my life, becoming a writer became far less of an imperative. As a result, writing felt less romantic, but became more enjoyable and in my opinion, my work became more readable.

Before I began on the medication, I wrote all day, but un-readable stories. And I didn’t read enough, a deep regret, because I found it hard to concentrate. So, I never progressed with the craft.

Being on medication, awarded me the simple ability of being able to sit and enjoy a book. And as a result, the quality of my writing improved dramatically. It was at this time, that I reflected on the way in which I’d been romanticizing my mental illness in the past, in that I’d always seen my anxiety disorder as ‘necessary’ to me being a writer.

It’s difficult to say why I feel compelled to write. And, like many things, just because there’s a question doesn’t mean there’s an answer.

However, one thing I can say with certainty, is that my mental illness does not contribute positively to my fiction in any way. Anxiety and depression, for me, feel very different to thinking creatively. Writing, in the past, has certainly helped me manage my anxiety and depression. But, being anxious and depressed isn’t the reason I wrote.

I know this, because even though now my anxiety and depression is at a manageable level, I write more than ever. In my opinion, I write better than ever. And, most importantly, I enjoy it more than ever.

On learning to socialise.

I was a fairly social kid when I was quite a bit younger, however when I reached my teenage years I found it hard to hang out with others. Even when I was in groups and talking, I would feel isolated and was convinced that nobody wanted to be talking with me.

I’d never initiate social events. I’d need others to invite me out and for whatever reason, I’d often say no. Then I would be offended when I was no longer invited to things.

I’d have flashes of being actively social, mostly times that coincided with me being on Prozac. However, I went on and off the medication quite a bit and for the most part I was very reclusive.

One of the side effects of not going out enough was that I became angry and defensive. If I’m honest with myself, as angry and defensive as I was about not fitting in with social groups – I really did want to be part of one. I just found it hard to talk in groups. I’d freeze up when spoken to and because of the Crohn’s Disease, I’d get tired when I was out for too long. I’d be afraid to be the centre of attention. If I found myself talking to a group of people, I’d go quiet, or find an excuse to leave.

When I did socialise, I would pry too much into people’s lives and try to play the shrink. I used this state of analytic distance, which I’d learnt in therapy, as a blanket approach to all social interactions, because it felt safer than trying to engage in a ‘normal’ way.

(On that note): One of the major things we discussed in therapy was socialising. I mentioned to my shrink that I needed to work on my social life. And he emphasized the fact that it wasn’t something I needed to work on, socialising was a form of play. He said I just needed to learn to relax.

It was something I found near impossible to do. After school and university were over and there was no longer the structure of an institution where I could attend and fulfill my social needs, I needed to become far more active in keeping in touch with people and going out.

I found it hard to socialise at work and on my days off I’d sleep a fair amount during the day. I kept to my room a lot in my share house and rarely went out.

During this time, I started on antidepressants which worked well for me and I had an operation which allowed me to gain some control over the Crohn’s disease.

It was after this point, I became suddenly panicked. I noticed that everyone from school and university were paring off and would soon start families. I was scared that soon there wouldn’t even be a social life for me to join in on. I felt that I needed to go out now, as I would miss out on making important connections with people if I didn’t.

I had a short period, I think about a few months after I’d finished a book I was working on at the time, where I forced myself to go out as much as I could. I got in contact with a lot of people I’d went to uni with and asked them for coffee.

I’ve spoken to other people who’ve said they’ve gone through similar periods of intense socialising, after being ‘anti-social’ for most of their lives. So, I don’t feel that weird about doing it.

At first, when I went out with a group, I’d prepare things in my head to say and get drunk a lot. I’d be very conscious in how I acted as I was desperate to be liked. I’d try to crack jokes as much as I could and always be ‘positive’. I’d try very hard to have ‘fun’. Often being loud and frankly, a little obnoxious.

My shrink explained that going out didn’t always need to be 10 out of 10 to be a ‘successful’ night.  It only needed to 6 out of 10. A good night could be one where I simply didn’t make a fool of myself, or I had a nice conversation with someone.

I quickly realised the importance of small talk. It is a way of spending time with someone, without opening myself or them to the potential of being hurt, as would happen if we only talked about our emotions.

A few years ago, I would have had a knee jerk reaction to thoughts like this – asking why I needed to adjust to ‘normalcy’, why I needed to learn to be ‘normal’ just to be able to talk with others socially.

And if I was able to speak to myself then, I’d give the answer: because it’s a far less lonely way to go through life.

On my fear of becoming a failed writer.

This post was featured on ‘Freshly Pressed’.

Three years ago, after I’d had my second short story published in Voiceworks magazine, I was emailed by an editor at a small publishing house saying she wanted to read my novel. I’d advertised this novel, (not the one to be published this year, but a different one I was working on at the time), on my Wheeler Centre profile. So, the editor had a pitch and, with the short story she’d read, a sample of my writing. That’s all any editor really needs to know if they want to take you on.

I got her email on the same night that I got another email saying that my third short story was going to be published in the Sleepers Almanac. I was quite a strange and excitable young man back then, only slightly less so now, and I remember I was eating a burrito in Melbourne Central train station when the emails came through.

I was working full time and would go to the train station after work to have dinner and do my day’s worth of writing. I chose the train station because it was away from my room (not having my bed in sight made me less sleepy) and they had free internet. I like to write with the net on.

After eating my dinner, I opened up the short story I was working on at the time and after ten minutes or so, I rewarded myself by checking my email. Naturally, I couldn’t write for the rest of the night.

My hands were shaking and I was delirious with excitement.

Having been sick with Crohn’s Disease, O.C.D and depression for a number of years, I had very little confidence in myself. Being chronically ill placed me in a constant state of self pity and doubt. I didn’t believe that I could do the same things healthy people could. Because, I guess, for a long time I couldn’t.

When I finally got well, I believed my limitations were to do with me, not because I’d been unwell. Even when my first two short stories had been accepted, although part of me was excited, part of me was convinced that the editors had made a mistake. When I got my marks for my honours degree, I believed the same thing. I had to bring down my achievements in order to match the inferior perception I had of myself.

However, when I got this email from the publisher saying she wanted to see my book, I couldn’t keep my self esteem down. Because I knew it was a pretty rare thing to happen and I had to have something to offer with my writing, otherwise I wouldn’t have received any attention for it.

As happens to people with inferiority complexes who suddenly and magically have reason to feel good about themselves, I became impossibly, unbelievably, embarrassingly arrogant.

I pinned my entire new-found self esteem on this offer. I bit off more than I could chew, overcommitted myself, put too much pressure on myself and couldn’t pull off the book. I finished it after nearly a year of writing, however, it wasn’t accepted.

I didn’t do very well after this. I fell apart, is the truth. It wasn’t only because of the natural feelings being rejected bring up. It was also because I knew I’d done a bad job.

I’d tried my absolute hardest and I’d failed. At this point, I became terrified of two things. One, my writing space would be tainted. And two, I’d become a ‘failed writer’.

From then on, when I wrote, I had to take it in short spurts because my mood would dip quite drastically and I’d start to doubt myself. I made sure to only write when I was enjoying it. This started off not being much at first, however as my next book, the one that comes out this year, started to build I became excited and wrote more and more.

Soon, I became absolutely obsessed with the novel and I started to look forward to coming home to it each night.

When I finished this next book, (which we’ve titled The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, and is about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community)  I felt fantastic, because I knew I’d done a good job. And when it was accepted, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or overexcited. It just made sense.

Having been on the brink of becoming a ‘failed writer’, I now see what it means. It’s someone who stops writing because they never received the validation they thought they deserved from the publishing industry. Their whole reason they write is to get published and when they realise they probably won’t be, they see no more point in writing.

That was never the reason I started writing and won’t be the reason I’ll stop. Death will be.

Since this latest book was accepted, I’ve had the privilege of meeting several other published authors. What I’ve learnt through this, is that, at least in Australia, very few authors live off their writing.

It seems obvious now that I’m writing it. However, I would be lying if I said that a large part of my fantasy of being a writer wasn’t that I would be able to earn a living off it.

Now, that I’m published, I know the reality. I’ll probably never be able to live off this. But, honestly, that’s cool. It takes the pressure off. And I’ve realised (not to get too sentimental) that all that time I was writing while working on the side, I was already living the lifestyle of a ‘real’ writer. Because, that’s pretty much what it’s like now — and probably will be for a number of years.