Today is the day. It’s my daughter’s birthday, not mine, but if past years are anything to go by, today will probably be the day I get several text messages from old friends. It might be a friend who hasn’t heard from me in ages, but has been reminded by a glaring yellow poster and the letters R U OK? that they do know someone who was open about being suicidal, and maybe they should make sure they’re not thinking about killing themselves today of all days. Or it might be someone who has typed up one heartfelt message and sent it to half their address book, being prompted to check in with everyone they haven’t been able to connect with in a while. It might be a friend I confided in recently about some of the personal stresses and problems I have at the moment. I love these friends and appreciate them, truly, but I don’t know what to do with their messages.
I’ve seen a lot of lies on social media in recent weeks. Covid-19 as a biological weapon. 5G towers. Wind farms. Being forced into a cashless society. Politicians didn’t say what they said. Schools are reopening next week. Even, sadly, “I have to pick up my ER doctor husband’s dead body” (be careful who you follow on Twitter). But perhaps the most persistent lie I see is phrased as a question:
Hello wonderful people! I have dropped off the face of the internet a bit lately, but that's just because I'm a master procrastinator so my to-do list is growing ever longer. I am about 2.5 chapters away from the end of a complete draft of the next book I've been working on, and when I can push myself to the end I'm excited to get into editing. I've also been reading a lot of other works-in-progress for fellow writers and there are SO MANY AMAZING BOOKS out there that haven't been published yet. I will be eagerly sharing here when they are available, because these people are talented.
My cats are growing bigger, my days of changing nappies are now over thanks to my youngest child toilet training, and the soccer season is in full swing. It's been a whole year since The Things We Can't Undo was released! Thank you to everyone who has read it, reviewed it, recommended it to someone, or bought a copy for a friend. I've also been working on a couple of short stories and have a non-fiction article coming out shortly in The Big Issue, so keep an eye out for that. I've been reading a bit less, but I do have some quick thoughts to share about what I've read lately: A Thousand Perfect Notes by C. G. Drews, Paper Cranes Don't Fly by Peter Vu, Nothing by Annie Barrows, Someone to Love by Melissa de la Cruz, and Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield. These are all YA books, but as we know by now, YA is full of great quality books that anyone can enjoy.
For a couple of years now, my husband and I have had a deal: I will stay home full time until our youngest daughter starts school (including the days she's at preschool), and if I don't "make it" as a writer by then, I need to go back to some kind of paid employment. This was decided before she was born, but only recently did we have a conversation about what "making it" actually means.
Does it mean a publication deal? One with an advance? Earning enough to survive on my own? Earning as much as I did in teaching? Becoming the next Matthew Reilly?
If it's the last one, or indeed any of the last three, my odds of doing this full time are pretty terrible. A study conducted by Macquarie University in Sydney showed that the average income of an Australian author from writing is AU$12 900 per year. To put this in perspective, I would have to work just one day per week as a casual relief teacher to equal that. Just 5% of the writers in the study were able to earn above the national average from their creative practice alone. Most supplement their income with additional work, both related to their writing (such as school visits) and unrelated. Nearly 45% said they relied on a partner's income or loans from a friend or family member to make ends meet. And these findings include scholarly or education writers, who earn more, on average, than fiction writers.
For shorter work, the website Duotrope tracks thousands of publishers (literary journals, websites, contests, newspapers, magazines etc) around the world for response times, pay rates and acceptance/rejection/withdrawals. Markets are listed as paying professional rates (5c/word or more), semi-professional rates (1c/word to 5c/word), token rates (less than 1c/word) or as no monetary payment. There are more token paying journals than semi-pro, more semi-pro than pro etc, because these endeavours are expensive and time consuming for the publishers and rarely bring in much money themselves. Most are funded by grants or patreon-type arrangements. About 25% charge fees to submit. And then there's the likelihood of selling your work to them at all. Overall, from over 86 000 reports for all fiction markets (including non-paying), only 4.8% of responses are acceptances. The pro-paying markets accept less than 1% of submissions. So to eke out a living as a writer of short fiction, rather than novels, certainly takes just as much work.
Suffice it to say, if you're thinking of becoming a writer, don't expect to be raking in millions.
Evidently, my husband's idea of success was about income. This of course led to a new discussion about our expectations and budgets, but it didn't change my dream, or the effort I'm putting in to achieve it. For me, "making it" has never been about earnings. I'm a realist. I know that this is an incredibly difficult industry to break in to, and I know it's by no means a lucrative one. Making it as a writer is about becoming like the people I admire most.
When I read a good book, I feel something. I think differently. I walk around in a "book-drunk" haze for a little while afterwards. I want to talk to someone about the story and the characters. I want to go back and rest in the fictional world somehow, see things through the character's eyes again. I empathise more readily with others and I think harder about things I might not have cared to question before.
I want to make someone feel that. For me, the day I will call myself successful is the day I get to sit in a bookshop and sign one of my own books for someone who calls themselves a fan.
So, I'll keep writing and I hope you keep reading ;) Gabi
One year ago, I went to church and made small talk with some friends. I smiled, commented that I was feeling tired with my husband away for a couple of days, and chatted about my week.
One year ago, I went home and babysat a friend's three young children as they played with my two. I assured her that it would be no problem at all and to enjoy her afternoon at a niece's bridal shower.
One year ago, I read stories to my kids and tucked them into bed, checking on them twenty minutes later to ensure they were asleep. I knew their dad would be home in a few hours and they were safe until then.
One year ago, I lay on my bed and thought about what I had thought about several times that weekend: the space in my garage ceiling that could be used as an anchor point, the dog's leash and broom that I could fashion together into a tightening loop and place around my neck before kicking away a chair. I thought about the sheer exhaustion I felt from fighting for what seemed like nothing. I thought about how stupid I had been to get pregnant, how it would be a much easier decision if I wouldn't be essentially killing a baby as well. And again, I thought about how my children would be safe, asleep and unaware, until their father arrived home in a few hours.
Then I did the smartest thing I've ever done. I sent a text message. Three, actually. One was to my sister, who knew how my depression had been worsening and who had been trying to help from afar as much as possible. She called me immediately to talk and distract me until I wasn't alone anymore. One was to my husband, who knew I was unwell and I thought deserved some warning of just how bad, and what he might be coming home to. He tried to call, but was on a train travelling through the countryside and kept hitting black spots. He sent messages instead, begging me to hang on. The third was to a friend, my pastor's wife, who replied with "we're coming over to sit and pray with you". After sorting out babysitters for their own kids, they arrived at my front door and didn't leave until after my husband arrived home at 1am.
I remember feeling guilty that I was taking so much time and energy from these people. I remember moving from thoughts about suicide and imagining failed attempts, to the thought but I wouldn't actually go through with it. I remember outwardly downplaying how bad my mental state was while inwardly chastising myself for being melodramatic and making good people feel unnecessary worry. I remember thinking and saying but on some level, I can't possibly be serious, because if I was, I wouldn't be telling people about it. I know you'll stop me.
The friends who sat with me talked and prayed, offered to let me sleep, listened to anything I wanted to say, and told me they thought it was time for a hospital admission. When my husband arrived home, they stayed another half an hour to share with him some of what had been happening and to make a plan for the coming few days, to ensure I wasn't alone. He and I stayed up another two hours, talking. I don't even remember what about. The following morning, my husband returned to work, my pastor looked after my daughter, and his wife K accompanied me to the doctor. My sister was driving the 3 1/2 hours from her place to mine.
I explained to my doctor that the depression was getting worse and I had been feeling suicidal. She told me that, ironically, suicidal thoughts were a possible side effect of my medication, but we could increase the dose. As I sat there quietly agreeing, K jumped in. "No," she said. "I don't think you understand. She contacted me last night because she had a plan." My doctor's demeanor immediately shifted and she wrote out a referral for the private hospital I'd looked up, then told K not to leave me alone until I was safely admitted somewhere. She said, "it's not your fault; you are sick. You can get better. Most people who kill themselves warn people beforehand. It might be a day before or a month before, we don't know, but most people tell someone. You have to take it very seriously and go to the hospital." I was surprised at her statement about warnings. It contradicted my own thoughts that I must be making this up, because if it was real, I wouldn't be sabotaging my ability to attempt it. But in a strange way, it gave me peace. People were listening. People were making decisions, so I didn't have to anymore.
My husband left work after an hour, unable to concentrate, and told his boss he was needed at home. K drove me 45 minutes to the nearest city and talked to different staff members at hospitals. She refused to give up when a shortage of beds meant driving to three different hospitals and taking up her entire day, from 9am to 6pm. I told her how strange it was to feel like I was fine, I was kidding myself, this was a weird mistake that had got out of hand, but then another moment consider whether I could sneak out of the house at 3am and walk in front of a truck on the highway. She made a point of mentioning the latter to a nurse, explaining that she was worried to take me back home when I talked like that. Finally, I sat alone on a bed that felt as hard as the floor, in a room with white walls and smooth edges, locked windows and no power points. The nurses had searched all my bags and removed a dozen things they thought could be dangerous, then left me with exhaustion and my own twisted thoughts.
What followed was the hardest year of my life to date. Three hospital admissions, totaling seven weeks. Medication increases that eventually took me to eight times the dose of antidepressants I was on a year ago today. Psychologist appointments weekly or fortnightly depending on how much better I was doing at a given time. Close to $5000 on psychologist appointments, around $400 on medication, $6000 on private hospital gap payments and health insurance excess. Not to mention the PHI premiums, the babysitting, the petrol to travel to all these things, or the possible income lost. There is help out there, and I am glad it is available, but I can't help but wonder if I would still be here today were I not a married middle-class woman with wealthy, supportive parents.
That year, horribly difficult though it was, also brought me to where I am now. Last week I finished another novel draft - many, many months later than I had hoped when I began it, but I FINISHED. I know the editing process is ahead, but I'm excited rather than exhausted by the prospect. In September, just hours after my husband saw K at her son's birthday party, we texted her to announce the birth of our daughter. I now have a six month old baby with a gummy grin that can melt anyone's heart, a baby that still felt like a theoretical idea back when she was inside my body and I wondered if I could bear to kill her. A few weeks ago I said goodbye to my son on his first day of school, my elder daughter on her first day of preschool. I celebrated another wedding anniversary with a man who loves me more than any rational human should, and he grew closer to our kids as he became their primary carer for periods. My sister came to stay and helped me decorate a Christmas cake, then we sprinkled fake snow from Santa's boots. I have not cut or burned myself once in 2017, and that's a bigger achievement than I know how to express.
When I think back on it all, I do return to that old thought. But am I really depressed? Did I just want more attention? Would I ever have actually tried it? I can't know the answer for sure, but with the clarity of hindsight, I know that I was definitely very unwell, barely functioning. I can see that recognizing how wrong a thought is does not mean it had no power over you. Trying to ensure that thought never translates to action doesn't mean you didn't think it. It just means that you reached out for help before it was too late.
This time last year, I sent a text message. I do not regret it. And I am writing today, sharing this with unknown people on the internet, because I want them to feel like they can send a text message if they need to. Even if they doubt themselves and feel dissociated from the thoughts they sometimes think. Even if they're tired and they don't know if they want to fight on for another week or month or year or however long it might take to get better, if such a place exists. Even if they worry that they've been burdening the same couple of people and might lose a friendship. Even if they're afraid of what comes next or who might know. Send the text. Please.
A year ago today, I made the smartest decision of my life.
I apologise for my silence over the past few months. As those of you who follow me on twitter may know, my mental health has taken a beating and I've been struggling to do anything that I love - including writing and reading. I also haven't been working this year, so haven't had anything new to share from the classroom. After a 3 week hospital stay, numerous appointments with professionals and changes to medication doses, I can finally say things are on the up. I'm writing again, and will hopefully be catching up on book reviews soon.
It's no coincidence that I shared about my experience with Depression and self-harm in February's edition of Gravel Magazine. Those who are interested in gaining a sense of what it feels like, you can read my article here. It has been a part of my history since my teens, and I've been lucky to have supportive family and friends around, as well as to live in a country where a suicidal person can walk into an emergency department and not be concerned about the bill. A more recent struggle for me is the diagnosis of an eating disorder and I've discovered just how few resources are available to fight that.
In the midst of all this unhappy news, I do have happy news to share! I am expecting my third child in early October. Obviously the pregnancy complicates the things I shared above, and I hope to be writing about that soon. However, it is wonderful to be celebrating a new life and feeling early movements from a baby who is already very much adored.
I'm still working on my second novel, now about halfway through after an extended break, and pursuing publication with my first. I'm still passionate about the creative process and encouraging young people to see where their imaginations take them. I'm still interested in hearing from other book lovers and wordsmiths.
Every now and then, I have a thought that goes something like this: “I’m an English teacher. I really should be more familiar with the classics. I’m such a fraud, having never read Tolstoy.”
Every fourth or fifth book on my bookshelves is one I haven’t read, one that I hope a visitor never spots and asks about. The stupid thing is, when I’m making a visit to a second hand bookshop, I’m much more likely to sell a book I read and loved than a book I haven’t finished yet. Because of that thread of possibility, that I might finish.
It took me years to get through Catch-22. I stuck with that one because every couple of chapters there was something that made me laugh, a little giggly moment of clarity where I saw why it was a modern classic. But I didn’t love it. If I had borrowed it from the library, I would have been saved by a due date, forced to return it eventually and pick something else. Because I had bought it, I felt like I had to finish. Like I wasn’t allowed to buy or read anything else until I had.
When the calendar flicked over to January 1, I began my New Year’s Resolution and 2015 reading challenge. I looked through my Christmas presents and bookshelves for Australian authors, and took Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot off my “what I’m currently reading” list on my website’s home page.
“I’ll come back to it,” I thought. “Next year.” The premise of the novel did and does still intrigue me, and the Prince had just started saying some interesting things, but it was slow reading and I was ready for something fresh.
So I was looking at my bookshelves, picking out the Australian authors and lining them up on a table. I had a Dymock’s catalogue open with the Australian authors on their 3 for 2 deal circled. I had a handwritten list of interesting-looking books I’d found on the pages of Australian literary agents. And my husband paused beside me to look.
“Are you going to read a Matthew Reilly book this year?” he asked.
“Maybe. Action’s not really my thing, but we’ll see.” I was deliberately non-committal. I’ve been known to fall asleep during action movies. It’s not the writing; it’s me.
He picked up the first two I had lined up: presents from a friend. Markus Zusak’s The Messenger and Tim Winton’s Eyrie.
“Would I like this? Tim Winton. Why’s that name familiar to me?”
“You probably read Cloudstreet in high school,” I told him.
“Oh yeah. I hated that book.” He put Eyrie back down.
In this short conversation, we acknowledged some of the unwritten rules of reading: 1.Readers tend to know their own taste, and that’s not an insult to writers. 2.Those who dislike something rarely go back for more.
The exception to rule #2 is a little like eating: those who dislike wasabi aren’t likely to go out of their way to find it. But those who dislike vegetables will try to find ways to mask the flavour or force them down, because they know that vegetables are good for them.
For some reason, I’ve internalised the idea that certain books are good for me. I was okay with saying no to Matthew Reilly, but when it had taken me a week to get to page 10 of Eyrie, I still felt like I should stick with it. I realised what was wrong when Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Cracks in the Kingdom appeared in my mailbox. I was longing to read that book. I love Moriarty. But I hadn’t finished Eyrie yet, or even made it a tenth of the way through…
I put the book down. Winton is a good writer. But he’s not to my taste.
Here’s why I’m writing this, and it’s something I want my students to know too:
It’s okay to put a book down.
You don’t have to like a bestseller. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of The Fault in Our Stars, and that’s okay.
Not everything “literary” is good for you. Give them a go every now and then, because there’s value in reading for the sake of language and exploration of the human condition, but when you find yourself wanting to bake a cake or learn to sew instead of reading, you’ve probably had enough for today.
Readers tend to know their own taste and that’s not an insult to writers or to readers. It’s better to honestly recommend a book that made you happy than pretend to like a book you think you “should” read.
Reading is good for you. Fiction helps us empathise. Reading improves our writing. Stories open minds and change them. Yes, even Harry Potter.
Staff in book shops do, however, make use of the employee discount and most of their earnings end up right back in the shop.
The odds of getting your book published are put to shame by the odds of getting your published book on the front table of a book shop. And that's where the majority of people shop.
Non-fiction outsells fiction by a lot.
Romance readers buy by the basketful.
School librarians buy by the trolley full.
Staff generally know what titles are on the Booker shortlist, but don't expect them to tell you which one you'd like. Most of them probably don't read much literary fiction.
Women buy books for men, men buy gift cards for women.
"Have you read this?" surrounded by over a hundred thousand titles is like saying "oh, you're from Sydney! Do you know so-and-so?" And still, every once in a while the answer is yes.
Selling books is a business, like selling anything else. People in that business spend all day crunching numbers, putting up displays and running money through tills. But at the end of their day, the vast majority of them go home and relax with a book. This is true even for the ones in management or head office.
Some people can't remember where they picked up a certain book, so they leave it on top of a random shelf or a chair. This is annoying. Others can't remember, so they leave it in amongst some other books in a completely different section. This is much more annoying.
There are more readers than writers in the world. Trouble is, most of them are reading the same books as each other.
Children read far more books than adults (except maybe romance readers). It might be time, or it might be education, but somewhere along the way reading stopped being a priority.
Book-lovers scorn television. Television lovers do not scorn books.
You never know where you'll meet your future spouse.