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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 I don’t think this is a unique anxiety amongst unpublished authors and I responded to this anxiety in the way I think many people do: I romanticised the act of writing.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 we all face, such as finding a job and becoming financially independent, or worrying about the things that may have been more specific to me, such as the Crohn’s Disease and my recent decision to no longer remain an orthodox Jew.

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.

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On the benefits of no longer believing my own delusions.

I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression when I was seventeen. After a month or two of therapy my shrink started me on antidepressants, which I found stunted me a bit too much emotionally. However, following this, he began me on a different medication, which worked well.

I didn’t magically feel better, but rather my anxiety levels were lowered to a point that I could face up to certain truths about my life that before I found too terrifying to acknowledge. In being able to acknowledge them, I could then do something about them and make decisions and take risks that would allow me to build a life I would be happy to live.

In having the new found capacity to acknowledge certain fears, I quickly realised, while off the medication, just how much I had been taking refuge in delusions in order to shield myself from the negative emotions associated with certain fears of life.

The big one being what I would ‘do’ with myself as an adult. If I ever had asked myself that in the past I would say: ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ This would help dampen the immediate feelings of fear that arose, however I was too afraid to take any practical steps towards this goal.

I’d be afraid to read because I felt jealous of other authors, I was scared to talk to anyone who’d had any publications, because it challenged the fact that I hadn’t had any. Yet still, I was convinced it would happen.

I see this type of fear as living with a dog cone around my neck, not allowing myself to face up to some of the scarier aspects of life and narrowing my perspective on things. Then I seek out those who will affirm my delusions, saying I’ll be a writer, they just know it, while avoiding those who challenge me, whether explicitly, by asking how practical I was being about this ambition, or implicitly, by having simply made clear life decisions in which they had embraced uncertainty and taken some actual risks, whether they were ‘paying off’ or not, that I noticed and felt challenged by.

I remember when I started this new medication, I’d also just had an operation to have a stoma. This operation gave me a lot more energy and all of a sudden I had all this time to fill and all this time to think. And these fears, which I’d been able to push from my mind before, by simply lying to myself, wouldn’t go away. I found that I no longer believed my own bullshit.

I went straight to my therapist and asked if I could have a higher dose of medication. He said no. The dose I was on was fine. The medication isn’t mean to stunt me like the first ones we’d tried had. These fears and concerns I’m facing are very real and need to be acknowledged. The mind’s ‘angst’ is important.

So, I went home and had a mild panic attack. I’d have to practically try something. I’d have to acknowledge the quality of my writing, research places to send stories to, start reading as widely as I could and put myself out there. And if I worked really hard and stuck with it for my whole life, I might still end up without any achievements I’d be proud of.

Of course, in practise, this path to publication has been far less dramatic, as I’ve mentioned in several other posts. And honestly, I roll my eyes a little at how dramatic I’d been. But, this is probably because I’ve already done everything I’d set out to do. I’m sure if someone took my book, my degree and all my experiences away from me and said: ‘now start again,’ I’d feel as terrified now as I did then.

On wondering whether I’d still be me when I started my antidepressants.

[Here’s a link to the Goodreads profile of my novel, if you care to check it out. Pardon the plug :)

When I was seventeen and needed to begin taking anti-depressants, I found that I was reluctant to begin. I’d been speaking with my therapist for a while, however wasn’t getting anywhere with the sessions. The medication wasn’t just for depression, but for anxiety as well.

One of my major concerns, along with having to admit that I had a mental illness, was the question of whether or not I would still be me after I started the medication. A mental illness is a diagnosis on an element of my personality, even if it’s an element of my personality I would rather not have, ie. being overanxious and depressed. It’s still a part of what I define as my ‘self’.

This obviously isn’t a unique concern. I remember having a conversation with a friend who raised this very question to me. He stated that I wouldn’t be myself when I started. In defence, I asked him if he was still himself when he was drunk and he said yes, when he was drunk, or sober, they were all versions of himself. And I said that it was the same as being on the medication. It is a different version of myself.

In retrospect, though, I would change this answer, in the same way I know I will no doubt change this answer again in a few years time, in that I actually felt more myself when I started the medication.

A sense of self seems like something we build through social interaction. So is easily influenced depending on who we spend our time with, in that we take on different social roles. So much is also dependant on immediate pressures in life and simple influences, such as hunger and exhaustion. We often get to know ourselves, not as a static state, but how we change based on different influences.

However, when I am unwell, I find that I am not able to respond to these different influences. I do have a static state. I obsess on certain thoughts and anxieties. In that sense, although it is my natural state, I don’t think that being unwell is what I would define as ‘me’.

When I started the medication, there was so much I discovered about my personality, which had been drowned out by the anxiety and depression.

I know the success rate of anti-depressants can be quite low. And this is just my own experience and it’s not for everyone. But my experience with it has allowed me to take on a less puritanical perception of a personality. In that, medication isn’t necessarily a distortion of my self, but an aid that allows me to learn my personality. I remember I was told that I wouldn’t know how unwell I was until I was finally better. And since then, I can see what people meant.

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 put in 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. So, When my book was picked up, I could sense some nervousness amongst my family and friends, that the book might expose family secrets, or embarrass the people close to me.

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 character, I find I always move away from the real life person to fulfil the needs of the story.

On writing ‘overly personal’ blog posts.

This post originally appeared on Inside a Dog, where I was a writer in residence for the month of August.

When I started writing, I never expected that my work would be read by anyone. There’s such a negative mentality amongst young writers about the likelihood of our writing ever being read, that I just assumed my work would go unnoticed.

This was a blessing in disguise, as it meant I wrote anything that came to mind without fear of what people would think. When I was twenty-four I wrote a short story about having an operation to have an ileostomy, which is a surgery where they bring a section of your bowel out from your skin and you put a colostomy bag over it.

I didn’t expect the story to get published. When it was, I felt suddenly vulnerable, as I’d put myself out there in a way I never had before. I felt embarrassed about what I’d written and was scared because anyone who wished to read the story would know something so intimate about me.

The story was published in a magazine called Voiceworks, which is a literary magazine that features work of writers under 25. After it was published, I had a few people message me saying that they really loved the story and that they appreciated the honesty.

I learned quickly that there was no danger in sending this story out for publication. I felt oddly empowered having my ‘vulnerabilities’ out there, because now I was taking ownership over them. If I hid them away, then they would take on ‘shameful’ connotations. Yet, if I wrote about them, they were been translated into something empowering – at least the way I saw it.

As I’ve been blogging, I’ve taken on a similar philosophy, in that I will share a lot of my ‘vulnerabilities’ and secret emotions. What I’ve discovered is that these emotions and experiences aren’t unique to me.

When I started receiving encouraging comments and messages about how much people could relate to the posts, I began to wonder why I ever felt possessive over these experiences. I’m not particularly possessive of my possessions, so why am I of my experiences? These are just experiences I’ve been present for. They’re not ‘mine’. These are experiences of being alive, which we all share. So why not talk about it?

Of course, writing these sorts of posts isn’t for everyone. But, for me, I don’t mind.

On writing a gay character, even though I’m straight.

This post originally appeared on Inside a Dog, where I was a writer in residence for the month of August.

My first novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being  Proper Jew, is about, Yossi, a homosexual teenage boy living in the Melbourne Orthodox Jewish community. I was raised orthodox myself and felt pretty comfortable writing about an orthodox teenager. I could just draw on memory.

Seeing that I’m straight, though, writing a gay character was a bit more a challenge. I was scared I would offend gay readers who felt that I’d misrepresented them. I guess we’re all a bit scared of offending people.

So, I took a lot of care in writing Yossi. The way I approached the task was by thinking about him without categorising terms that would separate him from me. Seeing that Yossi is gay and I am straight, and terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are ones that categorise our sexual orientation, I removed those words.

So, instead of thinking: ‘Here is a young gay man who is sexually attracted to a bisexual boy,’ I could instead say to myself: ‘Here is a human being who is sexually attracted to another human being.’ And then I’m able to think: ‘Oh, well I’m a human being who is sexually attracted to other human beings. How do I feel when I’m attracted to someone? Am I scared, excited, nervous? Do I think about them all the time? Do I want them to like me? Do I have expectations?’

Now that my book has been out for a month, I’ve had some wonderful feedback from both gay and straight readers who’ve said that they could really relate to Yossi. This response highlighted something to me I think already knew: we’re all very much the same deep down. It’s just a matter of taking that step to empathise with someone else.

And in the end, isn’t that what one of the major roles of fiction is? But still, sometimes I wonder whether I had the right to write a gay character seeing that I’m straight. Would love to hear what you think on this matter.

On losing my pleasant memories while depressed.

I was diagnosed with depression and OCD when I was seventeen, however I was unwell for about two years before that.

The depression crept up slowly. I found it harder to concentrate on my studies and it became difficult to socialise. Another thing which I lost, which I didn’t realise at the time, was access to nice memories. Others may have a different experience of depression, but I found that I distorted the memory of my life to focus only on the negative things.

When I started on antidepressants which worked for me, Avanza if you’re wondering, I found that they didn’t work right away. There was still a long period of adjusting to being on the medication.

As I’ve talked about previously, I found socialising to the missing ingredient to my emotional development. In that, when I began socialising, I started to feel much better – I had more energy, confidence and I could concentrate better. Overall I was feeling much less anxious and my mood didn’t drastically dip for no reason. I finally felt that I had some control over my emotional state.

It was at this state that I noticed the nice memories return. Whenever I’d talk to people about my life, I noticed that I’d word it differently to how I ever had. As I spoke, I would have mini realisations about how some aspect of my life which I’d always complained about, wasn’t necessarily that bad.

Every day, I’d have simple nice childhood memories return. I quickly realised how influential to my day to day life having access to pleasant memories could be. It can be as simple as making you smile while you’re on the tram or being as fundamental as allowing you to feel more hopeful for the future, as you know things have gone well in the past. It also helped me to see the people in my life and my upbringing in a new way.

I realised, despite all my moodiness, I’d had a very privileged upbringing. I went to a good school and never had to worry about whether I’d be fed or have somewhere to sleep.

Even with my experience with illness, which we might argue is a negative thing to experience, I received the best medical care that anyone, anywhere in the world, at any point in history, would have access to.

Whenever I’m asked if my novel is autobiographical, I always explain that the characters and the plot are fictional, yet the environment which Yossi, the protagonist, lives in is based on memory.

A large part of the motivation to write this book was the desire to sit with these pleasant memories, which I’d only recently been reunited with. I’d spend nights simply sitting with these nice memories and I started creating the atmosphere for the book by writing these memories down. And, in retrospect, I think it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.

On the literary world’s obsession with age.

The post first appeared on the Kill Your Darlings Blog.

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out.

I was jealous of writers who’d been published at my age or younger, and had a sense that there was a ticking clock on the whole thing. I’ve learnt that this isn’t a unique feeling, that many authors feel this way about publication.

I don’t think this line of thinking is unique to writers’ natures. I don’t think it’s a sentiment the ‘industry’ creates in us exclusively.

I think it’s an example of the larger cultural trend of passing judgment on the way each person lives their life – judgments we pass on ourselves and others. It isn’t enough that somebody does something. We need to know when, how and why they did it, so we can compare it to the other people who have done that thing and see who did it ‘better’. Then we can compare these people to ourselves, and use them as a barometer for how well we’re doing at this whole life business.

This may be a long bow to draw, but I wonder if the emphasis on writers’ ages has to do with the way some writers are seen as ‘life commentators’.

For me at least, I found that I was ignored when I was young, and my opinions dismissed as immature. Many people I’ve spoken with seem to share a similar experience.

To publish a novel at a young age has connotations of being ‘wise beyond your years.’ We have insight into life before we’re expected to. I guess it can make us feel like prodigies.

Although, of course, this is all if we choose to buy into these ideas, which many people I know don’t. I know that I have moments when I feel competitive and moments that I don’t. It’s never a static emotional state.

Since my first book came out, I’ve realised that a writer’s ‘career’ is not as clearly planned out as I first thought. I doubt many of us have much control over what we write and when, or when it gets published. I might finish my next book this year and it may not get published officially for a year after that. So, when do I measure it from?

All my efforts of manipulation over the timeline of my life are kind of pointless. At the end of the day, my first book came out when I was the age that I was, and my next book will come out when I’m as old as I will be then. In the same way that I will die at the age that I will die. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop trying to live up to a certain set of life goals purely so that it reads well on my Wikipedia page.

Which leads me to my next and possibly overly sentimental point: we don’t need to measure our lives based on our ‘achievements’.  We can measure it with a focus on so many other things: the relationships we’ve had, the places we’ve traveled to, the greats nights out we’ve had.

I’d love to add here: ‘or, better yet, we could not measure it all.’ But I know that, at least for me, I can’t break habits of thought that easily. I will always be slightly competitive, I will always judge myself – and others as well – and I will always measure my life in some way.

The only time I really feel free of these unpleasant thought patterns is when I’m in the midst of writing a really good story. Everything just stops mattering for a little while. I find that the real beauty of writing a story is how it allows me to think in ways I don’t allow myself to otherwise. It’s liberating. It also reminds me that, despite my competitive streak, the real reason I’m writing is because I just love to do it. And the real reason I’m sending it off to get published, is that I want my work to be read.

And getting to talk to people about my book has proven to be just as exhilarating as writing the thing.