Last year was the first year in which writing really became a job for me. Between various creative projects, freelance stuff, Movie Maintenance and creative writing tutoring I didn’t have a single source of income that wasn’t directly tied to storytelling. Which is the dream, right? I mean, obviously I’m pretty ambitious and have bigger designs, but making a living from writing work was something that, not long ago, seemed pretty far off.
The problem, of course, is that making a living from something means it’s your job and the thing about jobs is that sometimes you get over them. Sometimes stuff gets ahead of you and you find yourself burnt out and at a loss. The things that used to excite you don’t anymore.
I’m well past the point of fretting about whether or not I’ve ‘lost it’. At least once a year I have a mini crisis with my writing, wondering if I’m as good as I used to be, wondering if I’m ever going to get better, wondering if it’s actually what I want to do and so on. Inevitably, I’ll find a new project that excites me or something good will happen or I’ll just get over myself and these times pass. I don’t let them drag me down anymore because history has proven that, once I’ve had some time away, I’ll be back to storytelling with renewed energy and focus.
The thing is, I burnt myself out badly last year. My production company did four plays, three of which I’d written. I co-produced a web series, launched a line of radio plays, celebrated the release of my second published novel and wrote my quarter of an anthology that I collectively published with some friends. Well, actually, there were two anthologies. And none of this is to mention my work for Den of Geek or Sanspants Radio. The point is, I wrote a lot last year, most of it for money, a lot of it stuff I wasn’t especially proud of. And that takes a toll. Because when you’re working to a deadline, no longer writing for yourself, some of the sheen has to go. And that’s something I don’t think I’d ever anticipated.
By December I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t. Whenever I tried it came out clunky and awkward. So I just… didn’t. I didn’t try to force it. I went away on holiday and just waited. It would come when it came.
I started slow. I wrote a novella over the new-years period, a sequel to Sunburnt Country that had no reason to exist other than it being a story I wanted to tell. But even after that, I had no burning story to tell next. I had ideas, but those ideas were all being held at bay by responsibilities. Deadlines to meet and all the rest. So I just didn’t write.
It didn’t help that Moonlite pretty much dominated my January, or that it was a singularly difficult, stressful season of theatre, difficulty and stress that didn’t abate once the show was actually underway. When people asked me what was next after Moonlite I didn’t answer because there was no answer. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just focused on getting to the end of that show.
Meanwhile things were falling by the wayside. I had so much to get done but all of it would be handled tomorrow. That was my ethos through January; ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. Never mind that I was supposed to hand in a second draft of Boone Shepard 3 by the end of that month. I’d do it tomorrow.
Then, last Thursday February 1st, one day after the Boone deadline I had not met, I attended one of the weekly Words and Wine nights I do with the Melbourne Young Writer’s Studio, the first of the year. Words and Wine, where incidentally I am writing this, is basically what it says on the tin; a weekly catch up of writers where, for two hours, we drink wine and write words. That’s it. Last year I treated W&W as my holiday, the place where I wrote things that I wanted to write.
At the start of last week’s session we were given a challenge, to come up with three loglines for new stories on the spot. My plan was to cheat and use pre-existing ideas, then I looked out the windows, into the dimming sky, and an idea struck me. An idea about an aging astronaut who wants to return to the stars.
So I wrote that story, something I came up with on the spot, something that, from concept to completion, took less than two hours. I wrote that story and it was the best thing I had written in ages.
After that, I could focus on Boone. I could approach it from a new angle and finally get productive, finally get the rewrites done I needed, including some scenes I literally teared up writing because I was plumbing some character depths I’d never before touched with Boone Shepard. I got back on top of my freelance jobs and then, two days ago, I learned that I was one of three people shortlisted for the 2017 Monte Miller Award, which got me on to the Pathways Program – a collection of the best unproduced scripts in the country.
Despondency and flatness were gone so quickly. Not because I wrote that short story and it changed things, because I kept in mind at all times that, even if it seems counterintuitive, telling stories will always be what makes me happy and, if I’m in a funk, then chances are telling stories is the way out of it. It’s just about finding the right story.
Writing is the best thing in the world. It also sucks as a career. You make very little money, you’re constantly rejected and it takes a long time for anybody to take you seriously, if anybody ever does. But if you are a writer you’ll persist because, honestly, what the fuck else are you going to do?
The last couple of months have reminded me of all the worst things about what I do. The last week has reminded me of the best.
And if you’re interested, below is that short story.
Writing words about writing words.