Those who know me appreciate how much I like a challenge. I decided to double-major at university because giving myself a bit of flexibility and breathing room throughout my degree felt too slack. It's why as soon as I graduated, I applied for full-time work in an industry in which I had no experience, and began at the office within a few days of being offered the job. But this persistence to get my responsibilities out of the way before allowing myself any fun often means that once my duties are done, I'm grouchy from the knowledge that I have been working too hard, whilst simultaneously hankering for some new way to burn through my days because I'm bored.
Naturally, the challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November through National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) seemed a perfectly sane idea for me to do within the same four weeks that I was already slated to both move house, and jet interstate for five days. I approached the challenge with military precision, dutifully packing up my laptop to tap away on the train to work each day, befriending the perky English girl that worked at the cafe near my offices so I could have a chai and a type in peace (although, miser that I am, I never returned after she overcharged me that one time), and ensuring that I was awake an hour earlier than I needed to be every single day so that I could hit the word count before 8.30am... and if I decided to write on the train home as well, so much the better.
To clarify: normal people do not do NaNoWriMo. Every person I met at the first social event of the season was lovely, switched on, and desperate to get started. That night, I stared at a sea of people in bunny ears, oversized band t-shirts and overalls, and saw, vainglorious creature that I am, my own emo-loving, pubescent awkwardness reflected back at me, ad infinitum. But the people I met that night didn't need to be normal. No good writer is. After an hour of chatting about our stories, and becoming increasingly excited by the diversity of minds around us, my friend and I departed from the meeting feeling genuinely bolstered for the month ahead. The countdown from then to November 1 was an arduous one. I couldn't wait to begin.
I didn't stay up to partake the midnight write-in. Heck, I didn't make it to another NaNoWriMo event, social or work-related, for the entire month. But the invaluable company of my fellow writers for one evening motivated me to push on when I felt my feet dragging in the dirt for every one of those thirty days.
My commitment to NaNoWriMo did not cease for anything short of calamity. I allowed myself one day off, and that was to move house. By the next day, I was writing furiously from the early hours of the morning with atonement on my mind, spurring myself as if I had something to prove for the absence. I wrote on the plane interstate, and tapped away furiously on my creaky hostel bed at 10pm on a Saturday night when seemingly everyone else in Sydney was partying at the nightclub just downstairs, making out with adorably-accented foreigners. But I had taken this trip with a very particular agenda, and I wanted my weekend's quota out of the way before the main event on the Monday evening.
I had gone to see the King of Fiction, himself, speak. He answered questions from the audience about the religions and minutiae of his world, and bantered merrily with the actresses from the television adaption about whether winter was truly coming. He held the entire Opera House in the palm of his hand, and we barely dared breathe, so desperate were we to catch his every word.
After the panel discussion, those who had paid six hundred dollars for the privilege of receiving autographs, having a chat, and being photographed with he and the actresses were instructed to line up on one side of the building. The cheaper-ticket holders were told that they could line up along the other side of the great Opera House for an autograph... if they wished to try their luck, and if the man himself felt so inclined as to hang around. It was evident that any autograph-dispersing on his behalf was utterly subject to whim, and not to duty. I contemplated not lining up for all of thirty seconds. Only when I recalled that I had nowhere better to be did I search for, and find, my friend in the line. By the time I reached the tail, it was already over a hundred people deep.
The people in the queue churned ahead of me silently, silent with a deferential awe as they approached the little table of the most renowned living fantasy writer on the planet. He signed each book placed before him with frenetic energy and within moments, the expectant fan would make for the front door, clutching their oh-so-cherished, autographed merchandise in shaking hands. As my book was handed over by an Opera House employee, I instinctively thanked the man himself for his time. He actually raised his gaze to look at me and my brain went crazy, urging me to be cool. I was so excited that I almost missed our entire conversation. He asked me if I had had a nice night, to which I replied: "Absolutely, it was amazing. I'm an aspiring author, and hearing you speak has made me want to go home and write like mad."
And George R.R. Martin said to me, "Then write! Never stop writing. Persevere, persevere!"
From then on, the challenge was not to simply "win" NaNoWriMo, but to write as much as I could and with as much energy as I could possibly muster. After all, George R.R. Martin himself had charged me with the duty.
The bare bones for my second novel, Love, Inc., was finished within a week of that moment. Though I harbour a subconscious terror that I am encountering a sophomore slump, I granted myself the permission to edit at a reasonable pace, one conducive to my time-poor lifestyle. I am no longer in a desperate hurry to prove that I can "finish", though by no means is that something to turn one's nose up at. Because the few throwaway words of advice from my favourite author reflect the equal blessing and curse of the writer: there is no finish line, no point whereupon we really feel that we have said enough. We write because the story is clawing at our insides, desperate to spring from the confines of our mind onto paper. And we want to be rid of it as if it were a parasite sucking us dry, because to hold onto it too long evokes the same dread as if we were squeezing an infant too tight. We love the story desperately, but until it is rendered in ink, it is not permanent, or fixed, or safe. To simply hope that we will remember its nuances is to guarantee forgotten details, or lost insight into the characters. When we are so cripplingly scared of putting our baby into words and rendering it vulnerable to criticism, we have already failed. The alternative is agony but it's the sweetest struggle there is.
Now that NaNoWriMo is over, I'm exhausted. Looking at my manuscript, which required an additional 7,000 words to pass my benchmark, I felt no desperation to churn the final, filler pages out. It is not the satisfaction of completion that motivates me, though it is an amazing sensation to see page upon page materialise by your hand. The process itself is magic. There is no feeling in the entire world quite like when the right words appear onscreen unconsciously, as if your fingers have been hijacked by a third party, and your characters are reacting to the world around them in ways that surprise even you. It's the writing that I hunger for, not the completed project. No matter how many books I write, there will only ever be one story: the one I am writing now.
So yeah, I guess I did conquer NaNoWriMo... but in many ways, NaNoWriMo conquered me, too. Because it slaughtered the pedant inside of me, allowing me to disregard deadlines or expectations of myself, and simply write. And given that the first tome of A Song of Ice and Fire was released the year that I was born, and the series shows no sign of being completed soon, I think my hero would approve.
A peer from University turned to me at the tail end of my degree and asked me why she never saw me in any of the core Biomedical Science units. When I snorted with laughter, and explained that my degree was Global Arts, and am profoundly unskilled in the ways of extrapolating data from the prodding of poor little lab mice, she was shocked.
"There's no way you studied Arts," she gaped. I doubt she even knew she did it, but she uttered the title of my degree with an inadvertent curl of the lip, and a curious gaze, as if I had a second head that she had not, until that moment, ever properly noticed before. The emphasis said it all; indicating the clicking-over of every nub in the cogs if her mind.
I can't say I blame her for being surprised. I'm not offended by the implied elitism of a peer who has structured three years around hardcore microbiological science, particularly in contrast to some of my more creative, but less analytical units. I could pass for a left-brain learner, if you didn't spend too much time with me. All of my closest friends in undergrad studied Biomed, or Science, or Psychology. I had a key to the Biomed Society Office, and ran the Activities portfolio for two years in a row. Once someone gets me to talking about the so-called "legitimacy" of the autism-vaccines link hoax, I can argue about due scientific process until my opposition has been backed into a corner, cowering against the onslaught of my rage. I could pass for a Science student, until someone hands me a test tube and expects me to do... whatever people do with test tubes.
As a recent graduate, I didn't have much time to plot out the definitive arc of my future. Given I am prone to overexcitement about things in the distant future, and race through the days of anticipation like an overclocked wind-up toy, perhaps the lack of forethought was a good thing. I had decided on a career path, and a Masters by coursework was going to get me there, and I was going to use that leverage to ease myself into a swanky government job. With all of the responsible stuff out of the way, I'd be a hobbyist author who never needed to starve in order to create.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. (Warning: if you're not familiar with the term, maybe don't try reading Steinbeck as an introduction. You will feel feelings you have never felt before, and most of them will overlap with soul-crushing anguish.) But a bit of feedback on my penultimate undergrad assignment threw a spanner in the works: "I seriously hope you're considering Honours." My best-laid plans went awry. They went awry hard.
The notion of Honours had almost always made me want to gag. Intensive research, heavy self-directed learning, no exciting coursework options where a diverse spread of great minds explain the nuances in their logic... I have tried to create a witty denigration of the concept, like "Chlorophyll, more like bore-ophyll!" but the best I could craft with was "Honours; more like Horrors." Insert bah-dum-tish at your leisure.
There was a different factor, however. Something I had been bullishly trying to ignore: the prestige. Not many people can so easily stroll into Honours. Before I knew it, I had two offers sitting in my email inbox, smiling malevolently: the invitation to undeetake my Masters, staring at me with puppydog eyes in the hopes I would not abandon it, and the offer for Honours, wearing a shit-eating grin that said, without saying "It was always going to be me, baby." So I abandoned the former in favour of the latter, and lost my meagre 3 weeks of holidays chasing up supervisors, course advisors, and spitballing thesis ideas. "After all," I told friends and family, "A thesis is only 18,000 words. Even multiplied four times, that's still less than my first novel." (Don't worry, I used a calculator.)
About a week from commencement, I became overwhelmed and realised that, given my severe weakness for not being able to put off until tomorrow what responsibility suggests I should do today, I was saddling myself up for an arduous, painful tilt. There would be backbreaking loads of research, a forfeiture of all my spare time to write, an inability to make time for fiction writing, and all for a career path that was okay, but not necessarily my true passion.
Some people have a natural gift to do one thing, with perfection. I am not one of those people. I'm impulsive and showy and everything is my all-time-favourite-thing, if only for twenty minutes. And a year of research for something I felt lukewarm about, at best? Well, you can see what inspired me to run from that commitment with nary a backwards glance before I fell in too deep.
I deferred the Honours program with the expectation that I may come back in a year, but my indecision about my future tainted my ability every look forward to it. I began a full-time job. I started at entry level, and was promoted twice in the span of a year. I was immediately besotted with the variety, the challenge that comes with my work never being the same two days in a row, the solidarity of my colleagues, the support, the room for growth, and that's before even considering the cashola.
But I'm a lifelong learner. I'm always hunting for some adventure. And just because I'm comfortable, it doesn't mean I'm done. I've merely delayed the question of what I want to do when I grow up for another day.
Career and academic options have crossed my mind, and I have dutifully disregarded them soon after. I've contemplated investigative journalism... but have, alas, become more and more jaded about committing to graduate studies in a bloated industry as the media monopoly throttles the most interesting parts of journalistic debate in Australia. I researched a journalism internship in Ghana, and it continues to cheep in the back of my mind, imploring me to do something risky. But I fear that this is merely the new branch of volountourism, where rich white kids go to somewhere "poor" and pose with turtles, poor kids, and other colonial clichés. I am wary of any program that will admit somebody with no prerequisite but for the few thousand dollars it would cost to go. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does beg the question as to what prerequisites these "global experience too-good-to-be-true" organisations do have.
There's always the option to undertake a degree in some realm of creative writing. But even I am enough of a realist to know a bad investment in my future when I see one. This is not to disparage on anyone whose career path has been moulded in this manner, bur rather to acknowledge my own shortcomings. The fact of the matter is that the book industry is discouraging at best, impenetrable at most brutally honest. There's nothing there for me. Editing and publishing are nice ideas, but in practice, I would tire quickly of reading the work of others in perpetual pursuit of grammatical errors and failure/ My sympathy threshold is too low to read a crappy manuscript without writhing in discomfort for its author. I can't study the hard and fast rules of writing without losing my lust for it. I'm not a formulaic person, for better or worse, and to have to nitpick every beautiful, perfect Oxford comma out of existence in somebody else's manuscript would be more than I could bear.
So what is an Arts graduate to do, after the dust has settled? I used to sneer at the lazy jokes about the uselessness of Arts degrees because I had a clearly-defined path in my mind. Now, they actually start to scrape at the sides. And I rage.
I rage against the baby boomers who refuse to retire to give Arts graduates graduate-level employment, and the digitisation of everything that makes genuine, honest freelancing accessible to so many people that one can't even give away their work for free. I rage against the university that gave me no vocational training, and the niggly little traits of my personality that exclude me, as if I have no choice, from chasing honourable pursuits like so many of my friends: ethics, squeamishness, an aversion to the corporate emphasis will likely always keep me at arms' length from conventional success. Because of these factors, and half a million others, a litany of exciting career paths beckon no more to me than the notion of sitting at home all day in beige-coloured underwear, eating cheese that's just that little bit too runny.
I can appreciate how privileged I am to have the freedom to abandon any one career path so easily, or two, if considering the academic one I discarded with all the fickleness of a sub-par student. Ever-present is the temptation to circumvent being a grown-up altogether, and merely stroll into the sunset with a bindle at my back. This is the fantasy that tickles me the most, right now. I have mapped a 24-month Around the World itinerary that encompasses all the irresponsible wayfaring a lass could ever want. I have set a financial target to activate the dream, which was only recently met in the wake of my most recent promotion. It is invigorating to know I could go at any moment, if I really wanted. But still I stay - working hard at my job, spending time with friends, grinding away at a trilogy. I like the space I am currently occupying. And the hardest part of being as spontaneous and ambitious as I am is accepting that there is nothing wrong with living in the present.
Truth be told, I'm happy. I'm flaky and uncertain, but I am only young. I have a whole realm ahead of me to explore. As soon as I crawl out of my own head and the hunger for adventure takes over, my degree is only going to be a stepping stone, bunched with dozens of other stepping stones, that leads me down the garden path to the grown-up I one day want to be.
And when I think about it like that, there's no science in the world that can configure away my optimism.
There's something peculiar about aspiring authors. It's unique by contrast to almost every other profession, aside from perhaps how American Psycho depicts Wall Street bankers. An illogical paradox granted that success does not require hierarchical beat-downs of one's competition, as is common in other industries, but rather an intelligent channelling of creativity and appropriate marketing. It is a scourge on the creative world to bear witness to the insane jealousy between struggling artists, who see not only their peers as inferior to them ("I can't believe she got an agent with such a cheesy story, when mine is so much better!"), but already-successful authors too ("Audiences really are getting stupider if that's winning prizes.")
Such toxic envy is baffling to me. Sure, the green-eyed monster stirred in my belly slightly when a peer was signed by an agency that doesn't even accept manuscripts, and was thereafter picked up by Random House. But it took no effort to put the jealousy from my mind and be happy for her. The magnitude of her success is audacious. She was the only author that her agent signed in the last year, which is testament to the quality of her work. Opportunity didn't fall into her lap; she wrote something, and pitched it well, and she reaped the rewards of being good at it.
There are many people more qualified to write than I am. Some have undertaken Creative Writing degrees, and have years of editing experience, but it's not always that easy. I've met many people who say they "should" be an author, but have written nothing. I feel for them, because the muse can be fickle sometimes. But when someone from such a background turned his lip up at me and said something to the effect of, "I'm working towards producing good writing. Maybe you should have considered getting an education in the industry to produce better work too," I peaced out pretty hard. I know it likely stemmed from insecurity on his behalf, but that's not my problem and his childish reaction did not incline me towards feeling sympathetic.
Elitism about what constitutes "good writing" in the published world irks me more than much else. I can't justify the prevalence of tall poppy syndrome amongst aspiring authors towards those who know success. Writing blogs relentlessly tear strips from people like Dan Brown and E.L. James, but to my mind, their work has a valid place in the world. Because it's making readers out of people who would not pick up a book otherwise.
I love to read. I've read hundreds, maybe even thousands of books, and even if the narrative is absolutely killing me, I'll generally try to commit to the end. Even when a book, in my respectful opinion, sucks, it doesn't mean I can't see the merit in it for other people. My taste is not the barometer for all that is sacred in the literary world.
So when people refer to Dan Brown's books as meaningless pap, I can't help but cock an eyebrow. I appreciate that some people prefer to read dense, non-fiction accounts of history rather than tearing through Rome chasing assassins, but I'm not an academic of Roman history. I'm a fiction reader. And people are supposed to have fun with those types of books, because regardless of their failures to be realistic or historically accurate of whatever, at their core, they're entertaining. What's more invigorating than conspiracy, or subterfuge, or a world of intrigue that could easily slip into our own? I don't mind winching my suspension of disbelief a few degrees higher for some books. It's the non-restrictive nature of fiction that makes it so fun.
Admittedly, I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey, which was gifted to me for my 21st birthday in a swathe of gag gifts. The spine remains uncracked, and the cheeky troll face my friends glued into the corner of the front cover continues to leer at me, inviting me into a world where nobody understands the difference between BDSM and rape, and everybody murmurs.... well, everything they ever say.
Just because 50 Shades of Gray does not interest me, it doesn't mean I can't appreciate its value. It was picked up by a publishing house after being self-published, which is essentially unheard of. Whilst I take issue with some of the interpretations of kink, which blur the lines between consent and non-consent, I suppose it is engaging conventionally disinterested readers with literature again. At least until the film gets made.
If the power-dynamic of authors, agencies and publishers is framed like a nuclear family, then authors would have to be the children. Jealousy is what causes them to grapple with spiteful sibling rivalry, perpetually trying to usurp all others to land some parental approval. But in reality, other authors are not to be blamed for someone being kept at arms' length from their dreams. This blame lies with the agents, the ambivalent parent figure who chain-smokes whilst reading dense academic theses, looking up only to criticise the story of a fairy princess that the child has written in crayon. And though the author may have worked hard their manuscript, an agent will not lavish praise where it is undeserved. Nobody likes their work to be denigrated. In my humble opinion, this is why people equate the success of other in the literary world to their own failure.
The envy does not truly stem from a feeling of injustice, that the wrong authors are being picked up. It is instead a systemic bloat wherein a competitive industry is inundated with talent, and slush, alike. So-called "hacks" like Dan Brown or E.L. James do not strike gold in the publishing world because agents somehow loathe the craft of writing and want to drown the world in pulp. Authors need to accept agents and publishers know their stuff. If one's work isn't to a standard worthy of praise, it should only fuel the fire to work harder.
Whether they like it or not, literary snobs need to face up to a hard truth: good bad books are good for books, full stop. They encourage the industry to produce content, forces authors to be more innovative in their work, and encourage people who might not otherwise read to pick up a book. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, the revelation that the only way to be better is to dust oneself off, solicit the bejesus out of the manuscript, and stop seeing the success of others as an indictment on oneself. It's scary to render one's heart and soul in ink and put it on the line for criticism. But if it yields some form of success or other, what right should anyone else have to say that you don't deserve it?
You know when you're knee-deep in work, and you feel like despite ratcheting up the "crazy scale"* more and more everyday, you're just failing all over the place at being a normal human being? I'm talking about that feeling that the minute you achieve something small, you realise your achievement was a globule of spit in the great roaring bushfire of your workload.
In my world, it goes: you get your readings for classes under control (whoops, speaking of which...), you have to rush off to one of your two paid jobs; or pop into a Google Hangout/meeting for one of your two volunteer jobs; or your father accurately describes your bedroom as a "brothel", (which, fun fact, is a legitimate synonym for "messy"); you have a class presentation to make in the same week as three lengthy essays are due; your gym membership is going to waste because you went and fell down the stairs and messed up your foot so you limp like a cross between a bad pirate impersonator and Bigfoot stuck in a bear trap; and you haven't washed your clothes (or yourself) for a suspiciously long time... and, most unforgivable of all, it's taken you five days to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Well, that's the level of pandemoniac I rock on a regular basis. I know it all may be manageable if I were to drop maybe one or two of my four external time commitments that fall loosely beneath the category of "paid/unpaid work", but in truth, I am in my element. It probably has something to do with the adrenaline rush that comes with teetering on the precipice of madness. I enjoy knowing that I've got more commitments than I should be able to handle, but the wheels are refusing to fall off. I'm the little engine that could, motherfucker. Toot toot.
Many of you probably know the amazing pop anthem of energetic apathy, "I Love It." You know, the one about driving bridges into cars or some such business. It is the victory song that I wish I could have written myself, if I'd had more than three years of recorder lessons... and before you get into it: yes, I am aware that the minimum primary school requirement for recorder lessons was one year. For some misguided reason I thought that I had picked the one musical instrument would never fade into obscurity.
The thing that I love so much about this song is that it has maybe all of six different lines, which I simply can't seem to recall when I'm enthusiastically rocking out. I riff the lyrics without a self-consciousness or capability, and ten out of ten times, the words mangle badly. But I don't let that stop me, because I'm stubborn as a mule, and "I Love It" is my victory song!
And sing it I did upon the moment wherein I tapped the final sentence of my novel, and pressed the image of the floppy disk that signifies a bygone era.
Yes, dear friends, readers, acquaintances, stalkers, and that one random family member who might accidentally stumble across this post whilst practice-Googling my name to make sure that my cyber-footprint is concealed to protect me from baddies:
I have finished "Softly Screamed the Devil".
Upon raw completion, it clocked in at a solid 345 pages in length, but its girth has shifted frequently with each of its, thus far, six full edits. Writing a book is hard, no doubt about it, but editing is work. The time-vacuum kind. The "can't multitask doing this" kind. Therefore, I'm all about it.
Despite my life being fifty shades of cray on the time-management front, I'm loving nigh on everything. Admittedly, I'm not shameless in the way an author should be when it comes to pitching my own work, so the next insurmountable obstacle will be to let people who aren't my Nonno or my agent actually read it. But that can be "tomorrow Scarlett"'s job. Today Scarlett is busy.
*Not crazy-hot, just crazy. Because if you saw the split-ended, curtains-wide-open fringed, pimply yet dry-skinned mess I have become, your first thought would be "Damn, girl", but for all the wrong reasons.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.