Beggars Can’t be Choosers

There’s an old saying: “Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I guess for most of human history that’s been true—people asking for something without paying should be grateful for what they do get. In this age of mega-corporations masquerading as charities though, it’s a case of beggars get to demand what they want.

When a truck arrived at our house to accept a load of surplus furniture, electrical goods and soft toys we thought would be helpful for those in need, they went through it all and ended up taking only a couple of things. The rest they left behind. What they chose was based purely on what they could make money out of from re-selling, rather than taking everything to hand out to the needy. Yes, they’re a registered charity. WE could have sold everything on eBay or Gumtree, but we decided to donate to help the less fortunate. Turns out we were helping those way more fortunate than most others.

How times have changed.

The same could be said for publishers and literary agents. More than a few websites I visit to find an agent for my own work, and all I see is “we don’t want this, we don’t want that, and if you’re an unknown, we don’t want you unless you’ve been through hoops A, B and C; or you could pay our subsidiary assessment company wads of cash to go through your manuscript and tell you after months of nail-biting we never wanted you anyway”.

Self-publishing never looked so good.

I understand why some agencies do this. I imagine if I was bombarded by so much purple crayon get-rich-quick aspirants I’d become a bit guarded or jaded as well. The recent controversy on Amazon where the purple-crayon-brigade were artificially inflating their readership numbers to score “bestseller” status merely proves there’s always a few rotten apples prepared to game the system for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. I don’t doubt agents are vulnerable to those seeking to game the system somehow as well.

So how, in amongst all this noise, is it possible to be recognised and appreciated as a genuine writer with a genuine manuscript (plus several more waiting in the queue)?

To me, an agent is an important component of a winning machine. Self-publishing aside, a writer can’t publish all by themselves. They need marketing experts, distribution networks, beta readers, editors, printers and e-book formatters, and a host of other things to make a success of their hard work. If I come across an agency website where there is snobbish dictatorial attitude oozing from every syllable, I move right along. I have no intention of calling such people my colleagues, confidants or team-mates. What comes across is not a collaborative attitude, it’s snide bullying that wins no friendship or allegiance from me. If an agency is so accomplished and filled to the brim with winning authors, hooray for them, but why are they still advertising for more? Is it like the charity, combing through what’s on offer and simply cashing in on what they can lay their hands on rather than recognising what’s in front of them is useful to someone somewhere? I don’t get it, but then I’m a simple fellow with simple needs.

My current problem is I’m too simple. I don’t have the aptitude to adequately self-publish. The technical side is—for me—a doddle. Cover design? Interior layout? Professional typesetting? Graphic design? No problem for me—decades of experience in desktop publishing has that covered, no dramas.

It’s everything else.

The marketing. The paid promotions on social media. The newsletter lists and email addresses harvested from free handouts. It’s the cross-promotions, reviews on well-patronised blogs and all the other places where people can find out about your writing. It’s effusive Goodreads coverage and Amazon star ratings. In this brave new world where expert literary critics have been put out of work by everyone’s-a-critic, the signal to noise ratio has skyrocketed, and meaningful cut-through is hard-earned and rare.

Imagine if JK Rowling had the first Harry Potter book ready to go today instead of twenty years ago. It’s a book aimed at middle-grade readers (9 to 12 year olds). It’s urban fantasy. Imagine she’s still a struggling mum, living on welfare in the boondocks of an English town. She hasn’t the finances to pay for Facebook promotions. She has a couple-hundred contacts across Twitter and Facebook, most of them friends and family with a few mildly interested onlookers. Agent website after agent website tells her they’re not interested in urban fantasy that doesn’t have vampires and werewolves, especially from a first-time author. She might come across a few who are, but they prefer a female, LGBTI or “diverse voice” perspective (i.e. not a white male protagonist). Some agents prefer women’s romance where the most money is made, and could Harry be a 20-something woman maybe. Some might be looking for Young Adult opportunities, but Harry’s too young, despite possible subsequent novels (which can’t be mentioned in the pitch) qualifying. After careful consideration and refinement of her query letter (which costs her the equivalent of two week’s rent to get looked at by specialists), she sends out pitches. Rejection after rejection, and that’s not to find a publisher—that’s to find an agent who will represent her to a publisher.

She can’t find anyone. There are lots of “not taking submissions at this time”. She still sends off query after query to those who have their door open, each pitch carefully customised to the agent’s preferences as laid out on their website. It’s a lot of work. This isn’t writing, but it’s an essential element in getting writing recognised. A lot of agents don’t even bother to respond, while others send form letters to let her know she’s not what they’re looking for. If she’s lucky, she might get one or two who ask her why they’re reading about the Dursleys and not Harry in the first chapter. If she’s really lucky, she might have an agent offer a critique and perhaps recommend she get the manuscript looked at by a professional editor.

She looks to self-publishing again (after writers groups on Facebook warn her of the dangers of vanity presses). She hasn’t the money to promote, nor does she have the resources. More importantly, she knows middle-grade literature requires specialised marketing to parents looking for a book for their youngster, and even more specialised to youngsters capable of the “nag” factor, neither of which is available on social media, but is available in bookshops (conducted by publishers, not the bookshops themselves). Where does she go from here? Does Harry Potter ever see the light of day?

Now, I’m not saying my own literary work would be the next Harry Potter, but that analogy is where I’m at, and I really don’t want to try and self-publish middle-grade. I’m at a bit of an impasse. Agent after agent either aren’t looking for submissions or what I have to offer. So what does one do? The first answer to come to mind is: be patient. It’s a shifting landscape out there. What’s good one year becomes passé the next, dictated by the whims of consumer-spend statistics combined with whichever way the wind is blowing, or chicken entrails or whatever horse wins the derby or how hot the agent’s cup of coffee was that morning.

I’ve kept a record of all the agents and agencies I’ve sent queries to, partly to make sure I don’t send the same thing to them a year or so later, but mostly so I can work out who’s worth dealing with and who’s not. Like being completely ignored, a form rejection letter three months after the promised eight weeks is a definite black-lister for me. A kind “I’m not looking for this kind of thing right now, but I encourage you to consider re-submitting in a year” rejection definitely goes in the ‘potentially awesome’ list. A punctual rejection is somewhere in between. It’s a growing list but there will come a time where I will have exhausted the possibilities. I’ve been through the query letter refinement process. I’m not fielding rubbish, and I’m certainly not a purple crayon writer. I’m a serious writer with a growing portfolio who will consider themselves an ‘author’ once I have a published work in my hand. I’m also perfectly capable of researching how to write query letters, and have refined and refined to the point where I don’t believe it’s possible to further refine. The cruel twist is many agents judge a writer’s work not by actually reading it, but by how the query letter is worded. It’s like judging a painting by how good its frame is. For some, they simply don’t have the luxury of time. For others, it’s because they can’t be bothered.

My self-publishing attempts have been expensive and futile. I know where I need to be. I might personally have not even two pennies to rub together, but I refuse to beg. I’m not begging for my manuscripts to be published, I’m offering a partnership, a collaborative relationship where everyone involved wins. For those who think something like that is too hard, good luck to you. For those with vision and heart enough to recognise it, I’m here, and will continue to be here for as long as it takes, or I die in the process.

Just please don’t be that charity and take what’s on offer for granted.

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Social Values and the Male Body

The other day I was doing some research for a book I’m writing, and while the following isn’t about the book as such, my research uncovered some material that hit a raw nerve for me. Indeed it was so potent I stopped thinking about the book (bad) and started thinking about why the issue was such a sore point for me (not so bad). So after quite a bit of ruminating and only a little more research I penned the following (good, can we get back to the book now?).

I must preface this essay by stating this is my own perspective, and while some readers may disagree or have different perspectives, this remains—at least at this time—my own take on what appears a poorly explored and inadequately discussed topic.

Let me start by saying that sadly, my father never really did the “dad” thing.

We never shared father-son moments.

He was distant and perhaps a bit bewildered with having sons, which meant there weren’t terribly good connections established. When I was small, I was artistic, creative, observant and cheeky. He was a straight-laced disciplinarian (while being quite undisciplined and lazy himself), given to serious acts of selfishness, gruffness and openly foul language (which—of course—I picked up and got into trouble at school about on more than one occasion). I learnt much later that above the manipulative, domineering attitude he brought to bear on his offspring, he was also likely jealous.

That jealousy manifested itself in myriad ways. School accomplishments were denigrated or ignored. Growing taller wasn’t proudly measured with pen marks on a doorframe, it was met with exasperated eye rolls and criticism of needing to buy new clothes.

From an early age I was made to feel guilty for … well … existing.

As a pre-teen in the 1970s, I wasn’t really aware of the wider fashions of the time except the occasional TV ad (my TV consumption was kept to a minimum), and my fellow school students, who I only ever saw in school uniform. Being a private school with ethics, morals and operating habits firmly rooted in the Victorian era, the uniform was based on English prep-school designs of large shorts, a blazer, collared shirt with tie, knee-high socks, shiny black shoes and a little cap. Of course, starting school meant everything was sizes too big so one could ‘grow into it’ to make it last. The shorts and blazer were made of heavy woven wool and unlined, which meant they itched all the time on thighs and lower arms. They were also too hot for the Australian climate, but the nation’s slavish following of all things conservative English was deeply etched into the establishment psyche of the time, so no youngster was ever going to be in any position to point out such absurdities.

As I grew older and we moved house, I went to another type of school. This one had more relaxed requirements of school uniform, the ubiquitous public school short grey cotton shorts, poly-cotton collared shirt (no tie), socks worn whichever way and black shoes (Clark brand, of course). Clean, neat and tidy was the rule, and I accepted the cotton rather than wool with much relief. No more itchiness. At nine, I was already becoming aware of my body in ways I hadn’t considered before. Thanks to the more sleek cut of uniforms, I was also noticing the bodies of my fellow students. Little was I aware but the first stirrings of puberty were already twisting and curling their way through me. As the seventies closed and the eighties dawned, fashions changed, and boys were beginning to wear closer-fitting clothing. School uniforms were left to be outgrown, bodily shapes emphasised and the stuffiness of cultural imperialism gave way to a realisation there were more appropriate garments for the culture and climate of Australia.

Not for me, though.

That stuffy, almost Victorian-era too-big-as-new attitude extended to my casual clothing. A new pair of jeans weren’t skin-tight stretch blue denim like my fellow students wore on weekends and after school. My pants were biscuit-brown cotton woven so thick it was as stiff as a board (despite repeated washings with extra fabric softener), with a large brass zipper that curved and dug uncomfortably into the groin. The design was a form of bagginess last seen on the kidswear fashion catwalks in the early 1960s and wouldn’t become fashionable again until the mid-nineties grunge revolution (complete with outdated bell-bottom legs). I was made to look different, be different, and be uncomfortable but not be ungrateful and certainly not to criticise or even speak up. I had no say in what I wore. I simply had to accept what was brought home every six months or so and accept it with good grace. What I didn’t realise at the time was I was being dressed in clothing which—to me, subliminally—told me there was something wrong with my body that had to be hidden and covered up.

The eighties was for a young Sydney kid growing to teen years a decade of stretch jeans, short-shorts, Speedo briefs in the pool, a celebration of health and vitality in the great outdoors. Olivia Newton-John sang of getting physical; the Kenny Everett Video Show featured a team of dancers called “Hot Gossip” who writhed and gyrated in aerobics costumes to emphasise the human form; and Young Talent Time involved kids who danced and sang with innocent exuberance in celebration of joy in a sea of weekly smiles and trim, trendy outfits. Yet here I was, hidden away, clad in bulky, clunky gear, a decided contrast with all that. As an adolescent, I was told I was never going to be good enough. I was too skinny, too pale, too weak and too stupid (my father by this time had become all-out abusive), and my unfashionable clothing only served to emphasise all that. I was teased by fellow students who saw me on weekends, jeered and maligned, ostracised from social tribalism so vital to developing youngsters.

The family never went anywhere. Holidays were usually celebrated by other families by travelling interstate or overseas or to theme parks and the like. My family stayed home. It’s not as if going somewhere was beyond financial reach. My father simply decided he didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I made do by reading, working on my art and writing in my bedroom. Any friends I had were off travelling. One summer day six months after I’d turned fourteen, my mother had a shouting match with my father about being kept in the house too much. As a result, it was declared we were going to the beach. It might sound amazing, but in all the years I had lived in a city with arguably some of the most awesome beaches in the world, I’d only ever visited the beach twice before, and that was as a guest of the family of friends. I knew guys at school who practically lived at the beach, their tans and sun-bleached hair testimony to their love of surf and sand. I had never even seen a real surfboard in the flesh. This time was going to be different. It was a good day for a swim, so off we went. I had a pair of swimmers for swimming in a pool, but didn’t own any beach gear.

A fourteen year old is little more than an unhinged walking chemistry laboratory with the bunsen burners turned up too high. Wrap all that up in clothing unsuited for any beach and the beginnings of Social Anxiety Disorder and you start having problems. The family found a spot, draped towels on hot beach sand and settled down. Only after being repeatedly shouted at in front of startled beachgoers did I disrobe, leaving lily-white me in a pair of Speedo briefs amidst a sea of tanned young men and their pretty women friends and colleagues. I was then paraded from one end of the beach to the other by my mother so she could admire all the healthy and fit young people as they exercised, swam, socialised and otherwise enjoyed themselves on the pale sand. As we walked, people literally stopped and stared at me, the gormless, white-as-a-sheet, nobbly-kneed dishrack-chested skinny kid. When we returned to the beach towels, my father stared at me and shook his head in disgust. That crushed me.

That day couldn’t end soon enough.

The following morning my father walked in on me flexing my biceps in the bathroom mirror. He laughed and laughed, and kept laughing through the morning before criticising me for being vain. All I had wanted was to see how far I needed to go to be anything like some of those men I saw on the beach. It was the last time I gazed into a mirror for anything other than making sure my hair was combed. To this day, I genuinely feel ashamed any time I approach a reflection for any purpose other than to make sure I’m not startlingly presented or maybe on fire.

I think it’s fair to say that day was when the last of my self-esteem curled up and died.

I stopped caring.

When I finished high school and moved out of home to attend university, I thought perhaps I could start to build a new me. The trouble was the damage had already been done. The end of the eighties ushered in a new era, when aerobics and cycling became an influence for casual male fashion. Young kids were tearing around in fluorescent colours, skin-tight shorts and muscle tops, while adults were sporting acid wash stretch jeans and bright colours inspired by beach fashion and a love of exuberant beach resort-themed fitness and health.

Not me. I wore grey. At a time when I could choose my own wardrobe, I wore grey. I even bought a pair of jeans for myself, but I never wore them.

I was living in a perpetual state of being ashamed of my physical form. I was still skinny. Well … wiry, actually. I didn’t want people to look at me. I wanted to be invisible. I studied, joined a few groups (including a drama group for the benefit of my theatrical studies as part of my Bachelor of Arts in English) and otherwise observed while trying to not be observed. I was lonely, but that was all right—I’d become convinced I didn’t deserve friendship, happiness or success. Yup, my old man really did a number on me all right. I was a habitual beta (actually more an omega), so he could remain an alpha. Yay (this conclusion has been reached after years of psychotherapy, by the way—until that happened, I had no idea where all this came from).

The drama group challenged me, but I found a way to deal with it. I could never go on stage, so I stayed off-stage and wrote. I directed, I designed. I provided the necessary support structure so the others could be seen. I remained unseen, and I was fine with that. While the girls and guys strutted around on stage in black or blue leggings and figure-hugging T-shirts, I stayed in the wings in my baggy grey slacks and oversized collared shirt and nobody bothered me.

After university and approaching my thirties, I suddenly became fat. I’d been driving a keyboard for a while as part of my work, and around that age the metabolism changes. Mine did. I developed a big tummy. My legs and arms stayed slender, but now there was a beer gut. A bit of a surprise, as I don’t drink beer. I didn’t care, though. I wasn’t physical. I didn’t do sport, spent no time with anyone except my work, and had no ego to bruise. By my mid-thirties, my doctor was yelling at me. I had the warning signs of developing type-2 diabetes. I was told to find a gym and use it to conduct regimented exercise. He also told me because of my Asperger’s, I had physical co-ordination issues, so I should add Pilates to the regular gym workout, and if I could find a way, attend dance lessons.

Dance? Me? One day in primary school I had infamously declared I really enjoyed dance (dance lessons were taught during days designated for Physical Education but when it was raining). I was laughed at and teased by some of the other boys who reckoned dance was just for “poofs”. Such bullying utterly destroyed any aspirations for dance as a possible extra-curricular activity. A shame, as it turned out I genuinely sported an excellent physique for a dancer. Dancing would have given me physical activity and an opportunity to meet people. Mind you, my father would have been appalled, so not doing dance satisfied all those other people after all. Selfish me thought I could perhaps aspire to find things and do things I liked. Nobody had told me everything I did had to satisfy everybody else first. Oh well. My doctor also warned my system was susceptible to circulatory issues and rapid onset of lactic acid build-up during exercise, so he strongly recommended I wear compression gear while working out.

Wait … me wear tights?

In primary school one year, the end-of-year concert involved a fairy-tale story which saw every student on stage wearing an assortment of exotic costumes. Every single boy and girl ended up in tights … except me. I was a narrator, and wore a suit. I even had to wear a moustache. Made to be different again, and my chance for tights had been blown. Now here I was in my mid-thirties, being instructed to wear a garment that I had never worn before, which also happened to go against every fibre of my being. Wear something close fitting? Something that let people see the shape of my body? Who the hell would think that was okay?

Some deep-seated issues were being confronted head-on.

The thing was my self-esteem wasn’t opposed to it. My self-esteem—for what it was worth and whenever I could find it—simply didn’t care. It had stopped caring long ago. I was even in two minds about caring about the ramifications if I didn’t follow my doctor’s advice. Diabetes? Meh. If I rolled over and vanished from the face of the Earth, nobody would care anyway. Even if I showed up at dance lessons, would everyone laughing at me prove too much of the wrong sort of distraction for the class and I’d be asked to leave? I had no idea. In overthinking it all, I was going nowhere. Then a chance discussion with a colleague while working on a contract assignment gave me the necessary impetus. She thought my attending gym, Pilates and dance classes was the perfect antidote to my depression, anxiety and non-existent self-esteem. She was a world of encouragement and support the likes of which I had never been the recipient of before. I was bewildered. Where had this generosity of spirit come from? Was she sure she wasn’t confusing me with someone else? It turned out she was genuine, and I had the fortune to come across the diametric opposite of someone like my father. A genuine, bona-fide cheer-squad. Holy hell.

Shame she was already married.

So, I took the plunge. I bought the gear, enlisted in classes, and started. Nobody gagged and guffawed as I walked into the gym. There was a complete and utter lack of anyone laughing and pointing as I entered the dance studio. All I had were first-day intrigued side glances at someone so badly out of shape they needed help. There was a shrug of acceptance and then the getting-on with their own thing. I wore the tights. Compression tights for gym and men’s running tights for dance (men’s dance tights were phenomenally expensive at the time, so I opted for the cheaper athletic pants). Both the gym and the dance studio sported floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I caught sight and didn’t recognise myself. Holy hell, I looked awful. Not because I was in tights, but because I really had let myself go, and my outfit showed that as never before. I didn’t need bathroom scales to tell me something was wrong. There it was, right in front of me, plain as day.

The compression gear genuinely helped. I didn’t get the cramps and acid burn I’d suffered any time I’d been physical in the past. I felt great in them. They were more comfortable than anything I’d worn before. There were other guys who wore them too. At the time they were becoming increasingly popular, whether it was for showing off physique or for medical reasons like I had. Young and old guys alike sported them, and for the first time since I was a wee lad, I actually relaxed about my body image. Decades of body-shaming seemed to slough off as I focussed on getting fit and healthy so my doctor wouldn’t yell at me so much. I even told myself my goal was to be in shape enough where I could walk down the street in my workout gear and not feel ashamed (were I to be a normal person with a normal level of self-esteem and no social anxiety disorder, that is).

Then work changed. The contract ended. In one fell swoop, I lost my cheer-squad-in-the-wilderness and with her, my incentive. Out the door went my three-times-a-week workout habit. The dance course concluded, and I noticed I wasn’t tripping over my own feet as often any more. The dance classes were a serious workout, and it was only because of work at the gym that I was able to dance. With no more gym, I had to hang up my dance shoes as well. I resumed the sedentary life. In time, the tummy returned, and I lost the fight against developing type-2 diabetes. My doctor started yelling at me again. My vaguely stirring embryonic self-esteem took another dive, and I no longer cared again.

Not all stories have a happy ending.

I wrote this essay not because I wanted to describe the ups and downs of my health. Rather, I wanted to describe the damage that can be inflicted when a male gets body-shamed (and body-shaming in general—I think females have it far worse than guys but guys still have a problem, hence this essay).

I’ve noticed that particularly in English-speaking countries there seems to be a propensity of body-shaming any guy who wears close-fitting gear and who’s not already a buff Adonis. In recent years there seems to be a subtle push towards the eighties vibe of skin-tight (“skinny”) jeans, leggings, tights (especially compression/athletic tights) for guys, mixed with the sleek aspirational image of athletes. To seemingly counter that exuberance, men and boys are made to compromise by some quarters of the community. Hipsters wearing leggings or skinny jeans are sneered at, derided and even have their sexuality questioned. Guys wear shorts over compression tights (except sportsmen, such as football players here in Australia). A popular US brand of athletic and compression wear emphasises their range as being considered “under”garments. Yet in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as on the sporting tracks of professional athletes and the Olympics themselves, it’s unusual to see males treating their sport gear that way. In socially-mature and liberal-minded France, guys don’t usually wear shorts over their compression gear. Their athletic wear is what they wear as “overwear”, and they’re not body-shamed into covering up.

Some might argue over-shorts are for the sake of “modesty”, but they’re not really. They’re so critics can feel better about themselves being confronted by men accepting themselves as they are. Would that fourteen-year-old me have worn compression tights had they been around at the time? Had I not been subject to so much body-shaming abuse, I dare say I would have. When I attended the gym to work out, my personal trainer said to me the gym was about watching out for yourself and not to be concerned about what others thought. Everyone was on their own journey, and some had far more to travel than others. He understood (and agreed with my doctor) why I attended in compression tights, and assured me if anyone had “issues” (nobody did), it wasn’t up to me to worry about what they saw. All they needed to do was stop staring and get on with their own workout. I’d like to think such an attitude could somehow continue into the street, where the message is “kindly stop minding my business, thank you”. If a guy wants to wear athletic gear, let him. If they’re an overweight, under-fit guy like me, what difference does it make? Stop staring, it’s rude, and what’s ruder is telling me what I can and can’t wear. Generations of women have suffered and continue to suffer under the same domineering regime to their collective detriment, and doing it to guys is similarly unjustified.

When a critic declares wearing such garments as being “scandalous”, “indecent” or even “perverted” all they do is reveal their own rather perverted perspective, where everything is sexualised, scandalised and demoralised. In the eighties, boys and men, young and old would flock to beaches, swimming pools, waterparks etc in their swim briefs, and nobody thought anything of it. In these modern times, almost everyone is covered up in T-shirts and board shorts, briefs relegated to competitive swimming and diving. Even briefs themselves have been extended into knee-lenth “jammers”, which somehow seem more acceptable, as if the upper thigh were some offence to the sensibilities. All I learnt from that lesson drummed into me when I was young was there was something wrong with me. For me, it was because of comparing myself to my peers. In the modern world as everyone is similarly clad, it’s the ‘norm’ and therefore potentially not as harmful, but why hide everything away? Is it because everything is seen through scandalous, indecent, perverted and sexualised eyes?

Can’t we see the world with better eyes than that?

If males were permitted to love themselves for who and how they are, to aspire to be that tanned sack-of-walnuts buffed ideal yet accept where they are on their journey in the meantime, then body-shaming could be relegated to the dustbin of history where it belongs. There’s also a better than decent chance such respect might also come to be brought to women and girls, since much of what is foisted on them comes from the deep-rooted insecurity of men. As the fourteen-year-old paraded on that beach, a part of me knew there was no hope for me amongst all those svelte men and their tanned pecs. I was the absolute omega on that beach. I was shamed into accepting that implicitly. I also saw where I needed to be. I was presented a goal. Had I the self-belief (and support of family), I may have worked to be like them, or at least worked to be a better version of myself. Instead, with no self-belief, with no support or even an encouraging word in my ear, I withdrew and became a fat, sick nothing.

I know for my part it’s unlikely there will ever be self-respect. One does not build a house on unstable foundations, then attempt to fix the foundations afterwards and expect a solid, dependable house. All I can hope to do is bolster and buttress my house as best I can lest it come crashing down altogether (been damn close a few times). I don’t hold myself to any ideals, because to this day I still battle with any sense of worthiness in reaching any ideal (and there is no cheer-squad, either).

At the same time, and more for the sake of others, I still feel the need to take a stand and declare that body-shaming is every much a part of anti-social bullying as driving a car into a crowd of innocent people. Body-shaming can kill. It can lead to eating disorders, drug abuse, and so much else. My own self-harm has drawn me close, but I’m still here. Maybe I’ve allowed my diabetes to be my noose instead. Maybe something else. Who knows?

It’s time to stop the bullying. Time to stop the mean-spirited anti-social behaviour of those who feel some moral superiority because they come to believe in their own perspective alone. Time to accept and respect, to see with eyes of maturity and peace and hope and understanding and empathy, because frankly I think the modern world has had a gutful of the alternative.

I know I have.

 

Art is an Expression of Humanity

Art is an expression of humanity.

To be without art is to be without emotion, without feeling, without what it is to be human.

Some of the earliest surviving artefacts from human history are art. Art has solidified and coalesced spirituality and human relationship with the environment into tangible form, from rock art of the Pilbara to frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

My own journey of art started like most other infants—scrawlings on scrap paper, discovering line, colour and early structures. Unlike most children, very early on I drew what I saw, rather than what I knew. Art for me became an extension of expression and a reflection of context. I was drawing portraits of the cat, perspectives of a tree outside my bedroom window or experiments with the way afternoon sunlight reflected off a door at around the same time as I was learning how to walk. I didn’t consider this as ‘art’. I simply thought of it as a way to communicate in the same way as I was being taught how to speak or sing or body language to tell a parent something important, like I was hungry or needed a wee.

As I grew, so did my art. I discovered art books, and goggled amazed at lifelike portraits, rough sketches, sculptures in bronze, clay or marble and so many other wondrous things. My own art supplies expanded and painting became a dominant medium for me. To me, treasure wasn’t mountains of gold coins or fancy clothes. It was art.

Through my tortuous teens, art was my refuge, my solace, my love. In studying art, my eye differed to those of my fellow students—architectural lines of the Sydney Opera House or the muted tones of a late Rothko were profound to me in ways inconceivable to most others my age. I didn’t gaze upon the voluptuous curves of naked flesh in a Rubens and think ‘porn’. Instead I thought in terms of light and shade, flesh tones and body language, sensuous vulnerability, high drama and story created at a time before movies and television. I could also see proportion, composition and recognise the golden ratio.

As much as art was a part of me, from time to time there were shades to drive it into inaccessible corners of my being. Subject to appalling emotional abuse from an early age, depression would frequently stultify my art, and I would endure periods of blank oblivion. Much of what I had created was destroyed, relegated to the bin to make way for more important things, according to my elders and betters. Of course, art was never to be a career, never anything other than an indulgence that called into question everything from my intellect to my sexuality. That abuse also created a negativity inside myself which persists to this day. It’s not a voice to criticise what I create, instead be critical as to why. Even on medication it persists and with it the inevitable blank oblivion. Sometimes words will come and I will write (I consider writing as simply another art form), but canvases and pages remain idle, ink in its well, paints in their tubes, bronze as chilled ingots of copper and tin. Inspiration abounds, and sometimes the motivation rises to set up easel and commence, but my system is so sensitive all it takes is a single critical word and my art comes to a halt. All too frequently, that all-important word comes from within.

Yes. I am my own worst enemy.

I persist with professional therapy. There is so much damage to repair I may not live long enough to be entirely free of it (lesson: be kind and supportive with your children, respect their learning and never be jealous of their accomplishments and possessions. Also, never neglect to give them cuddles). The constant challenges of my mental health drive me to want to draw or paint for nothing other than therapeutic value, but for the last year every single attempt has ended in abject failure.

Recently I witnessed an art exhibition which left me utterly frustrated. While many of the works had their own particular delight and had been crafted skilfully, so much of it was also banal, flawed, dull or uninspired. I questioned myself on why my own work languishes while so much of this is not only exhibited but sold for quite considerable sums. “Because you’re a loser who doesn’t deserve success” comes the voice. “Stop being so egotistical. As if anyone would like what you create,” it persists, in spite of having sold works in the past. “Stop bothering other people with your lacklustre talent and small-mindedness. Nobody’s interested and nobody cares,” and so on.

I have yet to find the strength to not only pick up a brush but apply paint to canvas. I have done it before, but while that anti-ego voice fills my head with self loathing, cynicism, sarcasm and general negativity, I have yet to do it again. Even words fail to flow, although sometimes a tiny ray of sunshine will penetrate the gloom to illuminate the darkness and give rise to something. Today, it’s this essay.

Until I can return to my art properly however, to me I remain far less than what it is to be human.

Not Worth It

For the first time in a very long time, this evening I experienced a fleeting sensation of wanting to show off. Not be-centre-of-attention-at-a-party showing off, or streaking-down-the-main-road showing off. This was more celebrating a sense of accomplishment in some work I’d done and wishing to express myself to more than just my pillow like I typically do every time I go to bed of an evening.

Don’t panic—the sensation quickly passed, and I quit the graphics program I was firing up to prepare a panel I could share on social media.

I asked myself: Why bother? Who cares?

The response, swift as ever: don’t bother—nobody cares.

Right there’s the heart of the matter for me.

Self abuse.

I was taught to abuse myself very early in life. I was made to understand I wasn’t as important or significant as … well … literally anyone else. While the rest of the family ate the meat, I was left with the gristle. I was given the dregs of the bottle, the endcrust of the loaf, the cheap clothes a decade or two out of fashion. While my schoolmates scooted off to various exotic destinations during school holidays, I walked up and down our local street by myself (the only other kids around were our neighbours, and they were frickin’ nuts … and cruel).

I told myself I was lonely because I didn’t deserve friends. Everything bad to happen was my fault. I told myself I wasn’t supposed to laugh or be happy because something bad would always come my way to steal the happiness away. Soon enough that really happened—I became a morose child, an “Eeyore” as I was angrily accused of being on more than one occasion.

What eight year old speaks to their inner self like that?

I did. Constantly.

Now, forty years later, it’s so ingrained I can’t fight it.

I’m still not worthy.

I still don’t matter.

I still don’t count.

I will never deserve success/friends/money/happiness … whatever.

Despite this, I still make things. I create. I have the artistic eye, the appreciation for words, so I write and I create art. Beautiful things speak to me. Proportion, symmetry, the golden ratio, compositional balance, the language of colour and light are all close travelling companions on my artistic journey. I write stories of engaging characters in imaginative settings and intriguing plots, dabbling with words as I would a paintbrush on canvas, to create visions of loveliness, an escape or counter to my real-life predicament. Creativity is my passion but it is also my refuge.

I seldom share my work, and only then it’s the stuff I mean to sell. I need to sell because I need money to subsist. Not for me the extravagance of financial success—I dwell below the poverty line, my previous business achievements collapsing around me in a haze of self destruction and complete breakdown. My life is now a ruin, which is only right and proper.

Not for me any business success.

Now I am reduced to a near nothing, creating art and writing books because that’s all I have left within me to do. As is right and proper, all I have ended up with is unsold art and rejection notices for my books being submitted for agent consideration.

I suffer crippling depression quite frequently now. Anxiety, despair, fatigue all make everything slow going. Where once I was keen to achieve great things rapidly, now anything takes an age.

Before? I was a liar. I assured people I was all right, when nothing could be further from the truth, although in fairness, nobody ever asked me if I was indeed all right. Nobody ever came up to me and asked “Are you okay?”. I chose to spare everyone the ugliness of my predicament, because ugliness was my enemy. I only wanted beautiful things, to lead a beautiful life, to put the ugly nastiness and savagery of my past behind me.

Not to be.

After the breakdown, all was ugly nastiness and savagery. My creativity was a beam of light in that darkness, but frequently there are times when it falters and I fall into the abyss.

This is far more than mere writer’s block.

Regrets—I have more than a few, and I revisit them all the freaking time.

So imagine how shocking, how audacious, how bold it was to think that maybe someone out there might like to see something I’d achieved. Of course my normal inner voice didn’t couch it in those terms. No, to the voice it wasn’t audacious, it was arrogant. It wasn’t bold, it was the height of presumptuous selfishness.

So I put the work away with all the others to maintain my humility, to secure my obsequious regret at contemplating the demand for someone to spend their valuable time considering something I’ve made.

I can’t take compliments. I can’t accept support. Cheer squads are an abomination in my world of sensibilities. People mean well, and I understand where they’re coming from, but to me it’s genuinely painful. People want to help. Many people love to help, but I’m so far down this bumpy road, I can’t take it. I can’t accept it. Just thinking about it makes me extremely uncomfortable. The only way I can move forward is to change the frame of reference, and treat everything I do as a way to make money.

Money doesn’t speak to me.

Money doesn’t worry me.

Money doesn’t make my flesh creep.

If I can sell something I’ve made, it means not that someone likes something enough to want to buy it, rather I’ve got something they want and they can have it in return for money.

It might not be the truth, but it’s a system that works for me and my curious little problem.

I write as therapy. Writing this essay wasn’t meant as anything more than therapy, but I’m posting where I am in the faint hope maybe someone out there can gain something from it—perhaps a lesson that can help them grow into something more beautiful.

As my vision fades, my energies wane and the darkness descends, it’s all I have left.

What Self-Publishing Has Taught Me

It’s important to preface this essay with a caveat: I have various mental health issues, and cogent reasoning has been only marginally possible through a thick treacle of fatigue, anxiety, depression and myriad other maladies that have messed with my head for quite some time now. It’s very possible many of the issues and problems outlined below have been the result of normal things perceived through the frosted wobbly haze of my “challenges”, and the process of self-publishing is indeed a profitable breeze for most normal people. I’m afraid without a guide or proxy to assist, I’ve been on my own and had to work my own way through as best I can, which frankly isn’t saying much.

Anyway … to begin…

I wrote a book.

Then I wrote another and another, and before I knew it I had several novels done and dusted. Much of the time the words came easily, especially when I wasn’t battling foggy medication-induced mind-mangling. I learned the specifics of beta reading, editing and proof-reading, and before long I was performing said duties on not just client work but my own projects as well. I had colleagues who read what I wrote, and liked it a lot. Not neighbourly types or family members who humour you with platitudes—genuine dyed-in-the-wool critical eyes who’d point out all the pitfalls and shortcomings I’d missed, and before I knew it I had not just writing, but genuine literature on my hands.

It was therapeutic. It was good.

I felt as if I had accomplished something, which when you’re drifting on a tumultuous dark sea of confusion and illness, is a Really Good Thing™.

I sent one of my manuscripts off to an agent. I just knew they’d love it, love my writing, and one of their ranks would take my work under their wing and champion it to the right publisher, who would make it soar. I felt confidence for the first time in a long time.

Weeks turned into months, and finally there was the rejection slip. Oh well. Next crowd. Rejection slip. A year passed and the rejection slip pile simply grew. I remained confident. The trick was to find that special someone who was searching for a voice like mine. More rejection slips. Enough to dry my frustrated eyes. What were they seeing that I couldn’t? Or what was I seeing they couldn’t? I live off welfare and can’t do much in the way of “normal” work—writing seemed one way I could earn an income. Why were these people failing to see the commercial value of what I was sending them?

Something had to give, so I decided to delve into the challenge of self-publishing. There were plenty of companies advertising services for self-publishers. I researched. Sent emails. Even received phone calls. For the first time, I was grateful I had no money and couldn’t afford the services on offer—what a load of rubbish I came across. So many promises, such spin, execrable amounts of expensive nonsense. I was in this to make money, not spend it (especially seeing as I didn’t have any to spend anyway). So many snake-oil salesmen prowling the wings for unwary prey.

With the prospect of pay from a publisher via an agent rapidly diminishing, I chose to use my background in desktop publishing and go it alone. I created cover art, page layout and design to make my novel work as a printed book, before reformatting it to suit being an eBook. Job done, and uploaded to Smashwords for the eBook and Createspace for the hardcopy

Boom—one of my novels was out there in the big wide world.

publishinggraphic

There’s something special about getting your first ISBN, something quite magical about a barcode assigned just for your creation. I had hoped validation as an author would have come in the form of a contract with an agent, but instead it arrived in the mail as a hardcopy from Createspace. There it was—my creation made manifest. I thought it looked quite handsome, the pages a crisp white and filled with my words designed to shape thoughts, form characters, excite and entertain, so haughtily rejected by myriad would-be agents.

I’m not a salesman. Not for me the straw boater and cane, peddling to the masses. My mental health makes me appallingly shy (I genuinely have Social Anxiety Disorder, which largely condemns me to the house and away from dread “other people”), so rushing up to strangers and extolling the virtues of what I have to offer just isn’t one of my faculties. Nevertheless, in this day and age, the self-publishing author—like the painter or film-maker, or frankly any other creative profession—becomes the salesman. I don’t want to sell books, I want to write them. I’m an author, not a retailer! How does someone stuck at home sell books? I turned to Twitter and Facebook. I promoted. I found people who would spruik on my behalf. Thousands of people were reached. It was amazing. Thanks to Smashwords, my book was in every online retailer of eBooks, from Nook to Apple iBooks, Kobo to Scribd and beyond. Thanks to Createspace, my book was firmly ensconced in the Amazon universe, available in the US and UK and Australia, as well as Japan and Brazil and France, but not in Japanese or Portuguese or French, as I don’t have the kind of resources to afford a translation service. Coverage had been attained (in English anyway), success seemed assured.

Think again.

There are literally millions of new books out there, and it’s inevitable getting lost in the noise. Any author might have a Unique Selling Point (USP) for their novel, but it’s going to remain unheard unless a sales voice also has cut-through. In a sea of clamouring authors and publishers, that kind of cut-through is going to cost the kind of bucks that in many cases just makes it not worth it.

In the months since launch, I’ve spent $95 on paid promotions on both Twitter and Facebook. For that trouble, I’ve earned tens of thousands of “impressions” and $12 cash (after all up less than a dozen sales). I’m behind, and by the looks of things, getting into profit just isn’t going to happen despite continued promoting. Someone might suggest spending a bit more—say, $700—however not only do I not have $700 to piss against the advertising wall, and given everything I’ve researched, I remain unconvinced that kind of spend would return over $700 in revenue anyway. “You’ve got to spend money to make money”—yay, unless you don’t have any money to spend to begin with. Is that it? Is it not enough to slave over creating a book in the first place?

In the world of self-publishing: absolutely not. The book itself is only a minor cog in a much larger machine that still only maybe sees a return at the end.

Not that my book would win any prizes, but it’s not rubbish, either. Yet, I can’t convince folks to part with a measly dollar to read it. Is my writing truly worthless? Are people not interested in the thriller genre any more? I guess all they need for their fix is to turn on the TV news these days. Oh well.

So, I can only conclude it’s my fault (it always is, it seems), and I’ve screwed up somewhere. Maybe I can write good narrative prose of car chases, gunfights and terrorist attacks, only to suck at writing sales copy. It’s probably true—I never wanted to be a copywriter for magazines or newspapers flogging stuff, and attempting to write spin to sell my book seems to be a weakness or blindness on my part. Nobody’s sent me a demand notice ordering me to cease my wilful acts of promoting, so it can’t be that bad, but translating spin into sales just isn’t me.

Here’s the worst part: all this promoting, all this sales hustling, and I’m not writing. Not a word. I started on a sequel, but I’ve been spending all my time online, trying to find people who will buy my book, and my sequel (and other works) remains untouched. Self-publishing has transformed me from capable author into incompetent hustler. I’m not a salesman, I’m an author (I have a barcode and everything to prove it, too). I want to earn money from what I write, to lift me from below the poverty line, off welfare and into the guise of a self-reliant individual. My mental health needs it, and my ability to buy groceries needs it, too.

I need an agent who understands what I am as well as who I am, who believes in what I write and its ability—armed with cut-through in promotions designed by professionals who are sensational at promoting—to sell. Too many agents judge a writer’s ability on a few paragraphs or pages from a single manuscript. What if what I’ve written elsewhere is what’s needed to convince? It’s insane, it’s blinkered and it’s self-defeating. There are some extraordinarily wonderful authors out there who do very well. There are also some atrocious hacks who make good money, not because they’re lucky, but because they’re backed by agents and publishers who know how to sell, even if what they’re selling is really bad. I don’t know how to sell. I’m an author, not a salesman, and selling is not my job. I need a salesman—an agent who can work with a publisher to translate my writing into sales. Even if I’m a hack, surely it isn’t that hard? It’s done all the time. What’s another hack? Am I a hack? I didn’t think I was, and neither did my manuscript assessors, but maybe they’re wrong and I’m wrong and it turns out I’m the hackiest hack who ever hacked. That doesn’t mean what I write is unsellable. In some cases, quite the opposite.

Something else I have learned is to stick with it. Despite the disheartening lack of response, despite the shortcomings when it comes to alternatives to social media promoting (I don’t have mailing lists or any ability to cold-turkey contact bookstores to ask them to stock my book which I’d have to pay money I don’t have to get manufactured and shipped), I’m determined to not give up, either. Stay the course. I have to believe in the fullness of time word will continue to trickle out, and those individuals out there anxious to read something like what I’ve written will finally track my book down, buy it and enjoy it. Maybe some of them will leave reviews, and with those to hand, some of the best kind of cut-through might be achieved. Everyone who has reviewed it so far has been deeply appreciative and impressed, so there’s hope.

Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Just keep going.

My mental health is in such a state at the moment that I can’t write prose fiction even if I wanted to. It’s a kind-of writer’s block, and comes and goes to varying degrees. It’s my particular demon I have to bear. I’d love to get on with the sequel. I have it all mapped out, and reckon it’d be a corker of a read. Then again I thought the first was a corker to read as well, and all I get to see of it is languishing in a too-quiet corner of the world, pining for some love.

I guess the self-publishing route is good if you’re well resourced, well-connected and a natural at selling. For me it has been a route of frustration and expense I can’t afford, and the chances of me trying it again are extremely remote. The frustration has been nothing compared to the Quest for an Agent®, but I remain convinced that special someone is out there. Like readers, it’s about finding them, and helping them to find you.

Whither Writing? Or is that Wither Writing?

The autotelic creator is someone who creates for the sake of creation. The painter who paints without regard for selling. The musician who performs even if there is no-one to listen. The writing who can’t help but pour out their heart and mind onto a page that could remain unread.

Even an autotelic creator needs to eat, so sometimes they dip their oar into the mainstream and turn their hand to something they feel the “market” might like. For many, it’s not a place they either like or feel any sense of belonging, but still respect as a necessary evil so their own existence may be perpetuated or more comprehensive resources afforded.

A fortunate autotelic creator is one whose creations align closely with the commercially attractive. Tragically, there are also those who lived their whole lives creating wonders, only to be “discovered” long after their death (e.g. Vincent van Gogh). The worst are the ones who are never discovered—their anonymity in life continuing after their death.

Now in our own time, the accessibility and ‘democratisation’ of information has arisen, providing new curses (e.g. ‘alternative facts’) as well as new blessings (e.g. online art galleries, self-publishing eBooks and YouTube). Never before have creatives had access to potential audiences as they do now.

The flipside to that accessibility is economics. Never before has there been pressure applied to authors, musicians and artists to provide their creativity free of charge. The perpetual argument is to provide something for free is to raise awareness of that creative amongst a potential market.

Long ago I was told in no uncertain terms to never give anything away, as to do so was to undervalue my own work. A small sample was fine, but an entire work? Never!

I’ve adhered to that principle since, knowing full well there are numerous individuals out there who consider anything other than free as too expensive, and the world owes them a living. They’re welcome to live in that fantasy land if it makes them happy, but going to a restaurant and asking for a free meal is not only a slap in the face for the individuals responsible for cultivating, harvesting, refining, transporting ingredients, and then all the actual preparation, it’s just plain rude. Why should a work of art or writing or music be any different?

Again—free samples are fine, but not an entire work.

I write and I create art. Music and I parted ways a long time ago, but I still listen to it with a passion that frequently rivals my passion for art and writing. I will continue to write and create art. There have been instances where I have been paid by a person for my art and my writing. There is hope. I haven’t earned nearly enough to make a living off that creativity, but I continue my efforts in the hope that goal may one day be realised.

Perhaps my greatest fear is one day my energies will decline and I can no long write or draw or paint. I’ve already gone through horrific dry-spells thanks to depression, anxiety and a raft full of medical problems, and it has only been through tremendous effort I’ve been able to emerge through the other side of those tribulations. The old saying “use it or lose it” only makes me anxious about every time my hand is stayed—I fear the withering effect of demoralisation. Regardless, I will continue to create. My hope is what I create continues to be worth creating.