One of the most frustrating things about being a creative is that for a long time nobody takes you seriously. And really, why should they? If, like me, you start producing content in your early teens, then there’s no proof it’s anything other than a phase. There were a lot of people I grew up with who wrote stories as well, who eventually gave up. And of course, being a teenager, chances are the stuff you do produce isn’t all that good.
I knew pretty much from the moment I finished my appalling first novel at thirteen that this was what I was going to do in one form or another for the rest of my life. Sure, for a long time I thought I’d be an actor, but when I imagined my future as a kid it was always in writing. That was where I felt at home, that was what made me feel good. So I knew I was a writer and I knew I would never stop from an early age. But nobody else knew that and so there tended to be a bit of a patronising air from people who I told I wanted to be a writer growing up.
So what can you do when nobody really believes in you? You sure as hell can’t take it personally; any success in this industry is so rare and remains a distant fantasy until it happens. Basically, and this is such a horrible wanky cliché that I can’t believe I’m going to say it, you have to believe in yourself. Wholeheartedly, unreservedly, and beyond the realms of reality. You have to know that this is what you are going to do with your life, because nobody else is going to reassure you.
I just want to clarify something about the idea of ‘believing in yourself’. It sounds inspirational, right? Like something from a hallmark card or the theme of a bad children’s movie. Let me make something abundantly clear; believing in yourself is barely commendable. It basically requires you to be pathologically arrogant, knowing without questioning that this is what you’re going to do and refusing to listen to reason when people tell you to have a backup plan. It means, when some tool tears your work to shreds while you’re young and calls you talentless, you have to be conceited enough to know that they’re wrong, even though it hurts. Basically it means that with absolutely no actual evidence to back up your assertion, you have to think that you’re brilliant. It means watching your friends begin to find success in more realistic career paths, starting to make more money than you and looking for all the world like they’ve got their shit together while you’re still floundering, and you have to be okay with that. Because unless you’re a total prodigy or incredibly lucky, overnight success in a creative industry doesn’t really exist.
You also have to get used to those rejection letters. Because there will be hundreds of them. I’ve lost count of how many ‘thanks but no thanks’ emails I have from publishers, theatres, producers and competitions. And every time it hurts. Every single time. You don’t even get used to it; the older you get without really advancing, the more failure stings, because it no longer feels like something you have to go through to get better, but like a massive fuck you from a world trying to tell you you’re barking up the wrong tree.
But here’s the kicker; even if you feel like you’re not advancing, you are. Every word you write, every amateur play you take part in, every gig you play to an audience of two is making you better, making you understand your art more, teaching you how to get whatever it is you’re creating to the best possible standard. Every single time you indulge your art form, whatever it is, you’re getting closer to where you want to be.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m not especially successful. Writing has started to make me some money, so I guess I’m technically a professional writer, but I still have a day job that I need to maintain to pay the rent. But money was never that important to me. What I really wanted, what I craved for years, was validation. It was for something to happen that would prove to me definitively that I was on the right path, that I am good at what I do. And for every enthusiastic congratulation after a play, there will be a condescending judge at a theatre festival telling you that ‘writing plays is hard’ as if you need reassurance, or a savage review that calls your work thus far ‘amateurism run rampant’. Both have happened to me, and both hurt like you wouldn’t believe, sticking with me far more than any praise ever could.
But then, when something big does happen, when you win that first award or sign the first publishing contract, both of which happened to me within the space of a month ten years after I first started writing passionately, it changes everything. It makes every second of misery and self-doubt feel worth it. And it takes your career from prospective to something feasible. It’s the hand pulling you out of the water seconds before you drown.
I’m starting to see around me good things happening for other creatives I know. One immensely talented musician was invited to America to play at a tribute concert for Jeff Buckley, his idol, and is now living and making music over there full time. Another guy just got approached by a record label that’s really interested in his sound. Other writers I know are finding agents and work in television and some actors have been cast as major parts in feature films, fulfilling lifelong dreams. Each time something like that happens it’s amazing to see because it proves definitively that persistence does pay off. It has to. If you do what you do for years, you can’t not get better. And sooner or later someone has to notice.
If you were my friend in the vicinity of my final years of high school then chances are you recognise the name Chris Hawkins. To some of you, he might even conjure a handful of fond memories. To others he’s probably the cause of many an exasperated eye roll. To me he’s a collection of all of the above, and a little more besides.
Chris Hawkins might be the most important name in my entire life as a writer. And, for the record, he isn’t a real person. Chris Hawkins was the name of a character I came up with in 2007, the protagonist of a series of highly angsty and increasingly ridiculous stories I wrote between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Prior to his invention the stories I wrote tended to be blatant Lord of the Rings/Tarantino rip offs of the sort that fourteen year olds think are cool. Chris’ first story was the first time I wrote something remotely personal, a distorted depiction of my life with heightened versions of my friends, full of the kinds of events that were far more explosive, exciting and traumatic than anything I had actually experienced at that point. But the essence of his character and adventures were very real to a confused, angry teenager who was trying to figure out his place and how to be his own person in the face of a world that seemed to want him to be anything but. Writing something of that sort for the first time was intoxicating and through Chris I learned how to take the things that mattered to me and examine them through fiction. Basically, the beginnings of developing my own unique voice as a writer. So whatever the merits of his stories which I assure you were few and far between, he was integral to figuring out the kind of writer I wanted to be and his legacy can be seen in all the characters I’ve written since who represent parts of myself or aspects of my life I wanted to explore and figure out. So needless to say, while I can comfortably state that those stories will never see the light of day again, I have a lot of fond memories of them.
I have a potentially bad habit of struggling to let go of stories. Boone Shepard and Windmills both started out as fairly awful stories I wrote in high school, but my refusal to let go of them and focus on new things instead has actually paid off pretty decently, and in 2016 they’re still going concerns. Those two plus Chris are probably the three biggest fixtures of my writing life. The difference is that Chris has never returned, while the others have, time and time again and in different shapes until they eventually got within a reasonable distance of what they needed to be.
I still regularly think about bringing Chris back. Whether I rewrite his stories in a better way or pick up his adventures now years later to find out where he ended up, it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing. But I don’t think I ever will, because my attachment to Chris feels more like one of nostalgia than one of still needing to tell the story correctly. Chris was reflective of a very particular time in my life and it’s hard to see him having much relevance to the adult I grew up to be. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of seeing him again doesn’t hold some appeal.
I wrote eight different Chris stories, and in the end I ran out of material. Over the course of those stories he went through just about everything it is feasible for a tormented teenager to go through, and several things besides that were very far from feasible. In fact, part of the fun of Chris even then was that he existed in a heightened world that was a little darker and a little more dangerous than reality. It was a singularly adolescent view of the world and that was a big part of who Chris was. A more grounded version would probably lose the limited charm of what made his stories so appealing to me, and so I’m quite comfortable with the fact that he probably won’t ever be back. Unlike Leo Grey or Rob Ryan or Boone Shepard, he’s not the kind of character who I could see myself continuously returning to for the rest of my life. When I grew up, Chris Hawkins died. Or retired. Or something. Basically, I lost any need for him and I don’t see events aligning to create a scenario where he has to come back in the same way that Boone and Leo had to come back. But I still think about him and still wonder where he is now and how his life turned out.
My friend Finn once told me that I seem to delight in characters who are neither good or bad, characters with grey moralities who aren’t necessarily likable. Chris was the first of those; an angsty teenager written by an angsty teenager who even reading the stories back now is surprisingly complex and morally ambiguous. He was the prototypical Gabriel Bergmoser protagonist and his DNA can be seen in just about every character I’ve come up with since, good or bad. When I talk to friends who read the stories at the time, Chris tends to be the subject of a lot of mockery, and I’m the first to lead the charge of laughing at him. But maybe he deserves better than that. Because I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if it wasn’t for Chris Hawkins and while I may never see him again that doesn’t change the fact that he was someone whose story I needed to tell in order to go on and tell the uniformly better stories I’ve been telling ever since. And for that I’ll always be grateful. So unlike Boone and Leo who will probably always be dragged out for new adventures or extensions and reworkings of old ones, Chris has earned his rest.
Today I once again thought about writing a new Chris story, and in thinking that a title popped into my head; The Death of Chris Hawkins. But I didn’t start writing a new story or even really think about it. Instead I started thinking about what Chris meant to me and consequently wrote this. An overdue eulogy of sorts, a way of acknowledging to myself that he’s gone but also paying tribute to what he was.
R.I.P. Chris Hawkins. 2007-2009. Gone but never forgotten.
So last week Dave and Liam, a couple of members of Queensland based production company DCM Works came down to Melbourne for a series of meetings and sat down with myself and some of the other members of Sanspants Radio. We did a bit of recording, a bit of drinking and a bit of discussing and in the midst of it all they interviewed me for their podcast Art for Artists. The show is a worthwhile listen for anyone who's interested in pop culture or storytelling, and I really enjoyed the chance to discuss my career thus far with them. I've linked the video below; follow from there to check out more of their stuff.
Writing words about writing words.