Some of you may or may not be aware that I’m a bit of a hobbyist sculptor, although even saying that probably gives my abilities more credit than they deserve. Making stuff out of clay is something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a kid, and I’ve recently decided to commit to more frequent attempts, as, frankly, I need a low stakes creative hobby, something to focus attention on that isn’t writing.
It’s funny though, how similar the two things are in some respects. When you start making something out of clay you begin with a smooth sphere of the stuff, then slowly work it until it begins to take the shape of what you can see in your head. Clay doesn’t react well to you being too tough with it. If you work too long on one piece then it can dry out and start to crack. And the worst possible thing you can do it tear some off and stick in back on to fashion an arm or extra appendage or whatever. The moment the clay hardens, anything that’s been stuck on will fall away.
You have to roll with the (very) metaphorical punches. Sometimes trying to get the shape of the nose or mouth right will ruin another part. As much as individual aspects of the work require attention, you have to try and keep the whole of what you’re working towards in your head at all times. Overthinking can ruin it, but carelessness is just as detrimental. It’s also important to know when to stop. It’s hard to be a perfectionist with something that dries out after too long. Sometimes the rough parts are what adds character.
A novel or a script is pretty similar, but over a much longer stretch of time. The big difference is that the sculpting doesn’t end when you hit the conclusion of the story. The first draft is really just one step removed from the plain ball of clay that you started out with. The beginnings of the shape are there, but you’re a long way from the finished product, even if you think you are.
I used to finish something, decide I was largely happy with it, then move on. This is another reason working with clay is probably good for me; it provides a creative outlet in which I can do that. But in writing, I’ve found myself developing a new commitment to take my time. Instead of jumping erratically between projects, I’ve taken to spending a lot more time focussed on the ongoing development of a couple (in this case Sunburnt Country and Nelson and the Gallagher). I’ve taken my time; getting feedback on the drafts, letting those new ideas percolate, and then coming back to keep working at the thing.
A major adjustment in my thinking is patience. A few years ago I was desperate to be a famous writer. I didn’t care what theatre produced my plays or what publisher or agent I ended up with. I think I craved validation so much that it didn’t really phase me where I found it.
A few years later, that desperation is long gone. I’d much rather a story took a few years to be perfect, and the first step is to be flexible enough to never view anything as finished. Back in 2013 I chose to ignore extremely valuable feedback on Below Babylon because I didn’t want to do the work to get it up to scratch. I kind of shrugged and was like “oh well, too bad, it’s basically finished so there isn’t much I can do”. It’s the same way of thinking that led me to self-publish Windmills despite knowing on some level that it was yet to reach its full potential.
I’m not a patient person, but writing is a patient craft. Like sculpting, it takes time and a gentle touch to eventually find the right shape for a story. The difference with writing is that there’s rarely a time limit for finishing the work.
Take advantage of the fact.
A couple of weeks ago I got a call out of the blue from an old friend. We had been really close at the end of high school and in the years immediately after, but eventually drifted apart. At the time of this call, we hadn’t spoken in over three years.
I wish I could say it was one of those cases where we just picked up where we left off, as if nothing had changed, but it was pretty much the opposite. The conversation was stilted and awkward. There was no warm reminiscence or excited planning for a future catch up. The familiarity of the voice aside, I felt like I was talking to a total stranger. At one point, looking for common ground, I asked if he was still writing and performing music. One of the things that first brought us together was a shared artistic passion.
His response? “Oh, yeah. Sometimes. Here and there.”
There was no regret or self-consciousness in his reply. It was, fittingly enough, as if he was mentioning a half-forgotten friend from a long time ago. I didn’t say anything else about it, but it was a strange thing to hear from somebody who, at the time of our friendship, had loved his music the way I did writing. Someone for whom, once upon a time, the idea of ever giving up would have been tragic.
But he’s not the only one. Shortly out of school another close friend of mine was an extremely talented actor who could light up the stage and demand the attention of anyone watching her. She had this strange and singular quality; a kind of enigmatic, irreverent charisma, the sort of thing that I genuinely believed could have made her a star. She was also fiercely ambitious; driven and uncompromising in pursuing her dream of being a performer.
Except, well, she compromised. Spent years supporting a boyfriend who refused to get a job while he studied. Ended up in another relationship with a partner who didn’t approve of her acting because it might require her to ‘kiss other men’. She once told me that every morning on the way to work she would stand out the back of one of the bigger theatres in Melbourne, watch the cast members head in for a show, and cry. At the time I was living paycheck to paycheck, working late nights and dedicating all my free time to theatre. I urged her to do the same thing. As bad as things got, nothing could be worse than giving up.
Last I heard, she hasn’t acted in about four years. What she has done is buy a house, settle down, and make more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’m not, for the record, trying to speak for her or say that she would have been happier chasing a near impossible dream. I don’t really know her anymore and as far as I can tell she’s in a good place. My point is that if you had asked me, years ago, I never would have guessed at where she ended up. I would have considered it tragic.
The list goes on. Talented actors who went into science or law degrees. Writers far better than me who travelled the world and settled into government jobs. Musicians who went from planning albums to working real estate. And of all those people who I’m still in touch with, when I ask them about their art it’s usually the same response. “Oh, yeah. Sometimes. Here and there.”
I want to be careful with writing this. I refer to these real people not to judge or claim that I’m doing better than them (I’m almost certainly not), but rather to explore something that I’ve been noticing more and more as I near my tenth year of adulthood. On some level I suppose I always knew that, when it comes to the creative arts, only a handful ever ‘make it’. I mean, for years I’ve been confidently espousing the necessity of commitment to your art at the expense of everything else (which I know is naïve, bear with me). But when I was eighteen, I think on some level I really did think that all the brilliant, excited, driven creatives I had surrounded myself with would all find success.
But times change and we change too. Passions develop or they die, and holding on to the dream you had as a kid proves a lot harder when adult life and responsibilities start bearing down on you.
I have a bit of experience with this. One thing I’ve mentioned a couple of times in interviews is that, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor. I grew up in a country town, taking part in every school show, working with theatre groups outside school before leaving when I was fifteen, having gotten a drama scholarship to a prestigious boarding school famous for its theatre program. For my first year there, I obsessed over being a great actor. I alienated so many people with how seriously I took myself and how certain I was in my own incredible talent.
But over my three years at that school, I saw what real talent looked like. I saw the people who were genuinely good and I slowly realised that I didn’t match up. Acting as a serious pursuit died very quickly when I was out of school, because what was the point?
The thing is, that didn’t hurt much. Or even at all. By the time I let go of the acting dream, the writing one had already taken its place, and so in the end it was just a matter of recognising my true talent and committing myself to that. And maybe that’s the best comparison to all the people I mentioned above. Maybe, in a lot of those cases, they found their true passion and put away childish things.
That’s the optimistic outlook. Because persisting as a creative means living with a grim reality every single day, the reality that chasing the dream of being a working artist is really fucking hard.
I’ve said this a lot, but I don’t think I ever really meant it. I don’t think I ever really understood how it felt to hit a genuine dead end and be left wondering exactly why you even bother.
This year I’ve hit several. 2017 was one of the most creatively fulfilling years of my life. 2018 has been a different beast altogether. Things that I was excited for were pulled out from under me. Projects I took for sure things turned out to be anything but. Others that I had reason to be very optimistic about fell apart in sometimes brutal, painful ways.
It all culminated with a couple of shit weeks that left me lying in bed, staring at the roof and realising that I had never been as demoralised as I was in that moment. In the past, I would be disappointed about things falling through for an hour or so, then I’d get back up and go on to the next pursuit. But I had found myself in a place where getting up again looked at best difficult, at worst pointless.
After a couple of days, I did pull myself up. There was stuff to do and stories to tell. But hitting that kind of unprecedented low point has a lasting effect. I feel like I’ve come out the other side a bit jaded. A bit less starry eyed. A bit more resigned to the worst things about this industry I’ve chosen. And a bit more understanding of those who decided to choose another one.
I’ve said a few times, half seriously, that I have to make it as a writer because I’m not good at anything else. I’ve said that was a weirdly comforting thought, and I still believe it is. But in the worst moments of this vocation, it looks the exact opposite of comforting. Because trying to be a creative means being at least a little bit deluded about your chances, and in the moments where that delusion drops away and you’re faced with the truth about how hard this game is, you find yourself wondering if maybe you would be better off doing something else.
I have enough to my name to know that I’m not barking up the wrong tree. I make my money as a working writer, and people the world over know my name and have read my work. I am lucky beyond belief and grateful for the fact. But on some level, I’m still rolling a boulder up a hill and hoping that this time it won’t come back down again. If it does, I’ll sigh, rest for a moment, and try again.
But if you’re standing at the top of that hill, watching the boulder get smaller and smaller as it rolls away and you decide that enough is enough then I can’t blame you. A year ago I would have thought your choice was sad. Now? It looks a lot closer to sanity.
Writing words about writing words.