Although I had an inkling of Holden’s journey and I’ve seen some of the ups and downs, this post was eye-opening for me—I didn’t realise just how long it had taken him to get to this point.
There isn’t a single writer on this earth who’s an overnight success; it takes years of persistence and dedication, not just to writing, but to finding out who you really are. Then, you have to find the courage to put that person on the page.
The other thing to remember is that some stories need time before they’re ready to be written. They’re too tangled, too indistinct, too cavernous to be put into words at the time, no matter how much we want to. They need to sit in the peace and stillness of our subconscious, where they can be untangled and explored, and integrated and aligned with the rest of our memories. Only then are they ready to come onstage and be written.
If you’re a writer and feel like you’re getting nowhere, this is the post for you!
Holden Sheppard is an award-winning author raised in Geraldton, Western Australia and now based in Perth. His debut YA novel, Invisible Boys, about teenage boys growing up gay in the country, won the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award.
His novella, Poster Boy, won the 2018 Novella Project competition and was published in Griffith Review. Holden’s writing has also appeared in Ten Daily, the Huffington Post, page seventeen and Indigo Journal. He serves as Deputy Chair of WritingWA and is an ambassador for Lifeline.
Finding the Courage to be Visible
Usually, when I start the story of how Invisible Boys came to be written in early 2017, I tell the tale in the context of my failed first manuscript, which was a fantasy novel that was rejected by a bunch of agents before I realised it wasn’t good enough, and put it in the drawer. I talk about how I finally sat down to write about what hurts, and how what hurt most was the trauma of growing up gay in the country, which led to wanting to take my own life, and how Invisible Boys came screaming out of me in just two months.
All of this is true. But there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t talked about previously that I’d love to mention here, because learning how to write from a real place actually took a long time. The process speaks to the tenacity required of writers who wish to speak their truths, but who struggle to find their voice.
When I was studying creative writing at Edith Cowan University around 2007, I knew my writing was lacking the X factor. It was tepid and safe; something a literary agent would later, in a rejection, refer to as competent. In this era, I remember trying to get inspiration for a sonnet and just staring at the rain falling on the sand outside and writing about that. It was weak writing and made for a terribly meaningless sonnet. This theme ran through all of my writing of this era: I sounded how I thought writing was supposed to sound. I tried to emulate what I thought poetry or literature ought to be.
This led me to decide to quit my degree in the uni holidays in the summer of 2007/2008. I was working as an earthmoving labourer in Geraldton with my dad at the time, and one night I announced to my parents that I’d decided to quit uni, move back to my hometown and work forever as a labourer, keeping writing as a side hobby. They questioned me but I said I was certain, and they said they supported me either way.
The reason I decided to drop out of uni is because I was shit-scared. The fear was two-fold. Firstly, I was unwilling to venture within or plumb the depths of my own experience to write anything real, and consequently my writing lacked energy, or gravity, or meaning. I was a giant ball of angst at the time, but I didn’t know how to express my overwhelming feelings of anger, shame, rebellion or energy in a literary way. I was writing lots of moody poetry and lyrics, but I never imagined I could share this grungy stuff with anyone at uni. What would they think of me? So, I kept it hidden from the world.
Secondly, I was scared because I didn’t feel like I belonged at a university among other writers. I always felt like the bogan in the room. I didn’t get the hipster students’ references, I didn’t wank on about literature like some of them, and I didn’t find them as witty and clever as they seemed to find themselves. I concluded that a country boy didn’t belong in an arts degree.
Can you blame a labourer for wanting to quit and go back to the world he knew? Geraldton was safe. I knew how to dig trenches. I liked manual labour. I liked working with my dad. More than all of that, working there made me feel like I belonged in my own family and my own culture and my own social class.
By the time those summer holidays ended, however, there had been a seismic shift. I’d accepted I was gay, and with that acceptance came a willingness to be more open about myself and my life. I decided to give uni another shot, and if it was still terrible at the end of that year, I would give up for good.
Thankfully, that was the year I first tried to write about my real life. In my first semester back, I wrote a short story called A Man. It was a character study of an earthmoving labourer who felt stuck and unhappy in his life, a stagnant life with no prospects and a pregnant girlfriend above his station who resented him. It was, I now realise, me exploring my possible future if I returned to Geraldton, returned to labouring, and chose to remain a straight man.
A Man landed me a High Distinction from my creative writing lecturer and was accepted for publication in Indigo Journal later that year. It was a watershed moment in my writing career, because I was finally willing to put myself on the page.
Emboldened, I started writing poetry and prose at uni that was increasingly dark, grungy, provocative and graphic. I wrote aggressive poetry cycles about masturbation, flash fiction about a country boy with an attitude problem, and finally an experimental mix of prose and poetry laid out as a seventeen-track ‘album’ called Good Boys where I alluded to the sexual experimentation of my gap year for the first time ever.
When I commenced my Honours year in 2012, I decided I was finally ready to tackle a story about a country boy who was also gay; I was fascinated by the intersection of masculinity and homosexuality in the same body.
But this was when the wheels fell off and my writing career derailed, almost permanently.
My Honours project, a 10,000-word story titled Full-Forward, was about a twenty-something footy player and labourer in Geraldton who was also homosexual. It was absolutely the story of my heart. But writing it did not unfold the way I thought it would. Every time I tried to write this story, it felt like all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. It distressed me for reasons I couldn’t quite identify. I became very depressed and, for the second time in my life, suicidal.
I started having regular panic attacks and ended up in the emergency ward repeatedly, thinking I was dying. Not being in tune with my emotions, I self-medicated with alcohol and developed a drinking problem. Not being the kind of person to cut myself any slack, I refused to stop writing the story or step away from my thesis. I’d start each day getting as drunk as possible, then, once I was numb, I’d write some more of my Honours thesis. It was the only way I could cope with diving into trauma that was still recent and still unresolved.
I wrote most, if not all, of my Honours thesis under the influence. I managed to graduate with first-class Honours, but it nearly cost me my sanity and my life.
After that heinous year was done, I decided this was something I could never write about again. It had nearly destroyed me. I’d wanted to turn Full-Forward into a novel, but I knew it would finish me off.
For the entire year of 2013, I was too scared to write anything at all. Not a word. I worked full-time and was incredibly miserable and still carried a drinking problem, but I was at least sane. When 2014 hit and I forced myself to write again, I chose to work on a YA fantasy novel, with which I made all the same mistakes of my early uni work: it didn’t touch on a single real feeling or emotion; it didn’t have anything to say.
It took the failure of that fantasy novel in early 2017 to bring me full circle. I sat on the couch making a list of the things that had hurt in my life, and I kept coming back to the same topic: how much it fucked me up growing up gay in the country and trying to fight it.
I’d made some changes in those intervening years. I’d gotten sober and was in regular therapy. I’d gotten in touch with my emotions. I’d learnt how to express my anger and sorrow and shame and guilt and joy, and that there was room for all feelings in art.
But, given what 2012 had done to me, I was wary.
I decided I wouldn’t jump straight into the novel-length version of Full-Forward. I was releasing some short stories online around this time, so, instead, I wrote a little short story featuring the main character, Kade, when he was a teenager. I wanted to depict his first realisation that he had feelings for boys. My grand plan was to release four short stories in 2017: A Man, The Scroll of Isidor, The Black Flower, and the short story about Kade.
I never released the fourth story.
When I sat down to write Kade’s story, I felt a surge of emotions and empowerment I’d never felt in my writing before. And I couldn’t stop writing. In just two days in early 2017, my planned ‘short story’ about a young Kade exploded from just an idea into a 20,000-word novella called Damage Control. It featured a skinny guy called John Hammer who was gay, and also a waiter at Kade’s cousin’s wedding called Zeke, who was a little older.
Long story short, I eventually realised this novella was the foundation of my own story being told through fiction. I was curious about the artistic John and the character of Zeke with his ethnic family playing a part in his situation, and I realised I could draw three very different characters to help depict the experience of growing up gay. Writing this story with teenage characters made a lot more sense and would be more realistic and meaningful than working with twenty-somethings.
That July, I sat down and wrote Invisible Boys from scratch. Kade became Hammer, the jock; John became Charlie, the punk; and Zeke the waiter became Zeke the geek, and was aged down to be at school with the other boys. I guess the rest is history.
When I say I wrote the first draft of Invisible Boys in just two months, this is true. However, perhaps the reason it came roaring into the world like a supercharged car was because I’d tried, and failed, so many times to speak my truth.
I learnt some really important lessons in this process that I often share with other writers. I learnt that writing from personal trauma is an enormous burden on the author, and it should be done with the author prioritising their wellbeing and self-care.
I learnt that this kind of storytelling needs to come from an author’s scars, not their wounds; if something is a fresh wound, it isn’t ready to be told yet.
Most of all, I learnt that any writing worth anything requires the writer to be vulnerable in some way. If we want a reader’s heart to hear us, we need to be willing to speak from the heart: to throw away all expectations and sacred cows, and write in an honest, unfettered way.
Writing in this way didn’t just produce a novel that I’m incredibly proud of: it made me the man I am today. I became braver, bolder and more empowered. Moreover, my entire writing style shifted for the better. There is now a beating heart at the core of all my writing, and I would encourage other authors to follow their gut to find their own writing’s heart, too. I can’t guarantee the outcome will always be a published novel, but the journey alone is worth it.