Self-sabotage and comedy and work and dreams and stuff

5

Interning for the Salvation Army was confronting and the issues I witnessed outside my comfort zone. All I wanted for my precious leisure time was to retreat into other worlds. Worlds like Hogwarts and Runescape and wherever the hell Twilight is set.

 The 11 interns had one television to share. Our internet was limited and there was no access to the online video games I was addicted to. The TV was reserved for Doctor Who, a show I was reluctant to watch. I’d walk through the hallway to my room, roll my eyes and think, “damn, that theme music is more annoying than Smallville’s.”

Instead I chose to sleep, read, or write.

Themes of loneliness, depression and alcoholism began to emerge in poor forms of poetry and fictional remakes of what I was witnessing on the streets. The anger was directed at God or through religious propaganda.

6

This isn’t its own chapter. I just didn’t want to tell you the first section of this content is in another blog post called Bears, Bad-Ass Juveniles and Pregnant Moons, in the first line.

7

I returned to university. My creative writing marks are as high as you can get. My politics marks are as poor as you can get while still passing. My journalism subjects are somewhere in the spectrum of decent and respectable.

This is where I first tap into my childhood to turn it into fiction. I write a collection of short stories about a teenager who grew up in a foster home. I submitted the 92,000 word novel into The Australian’s Vogel Literary Award.

It didn’t shortlist. The book is almost useless but sometimes writers need to get their first one out of their way before they are ready to publish.

The other books I never completed were of the fantasy genre. These were space opera, high fantasy, and teenage paranormal genres which I kept separate from my university assessments. Genre fiction was not encouraged in university courses and those who spoke of these themes in workshops were looked on in disdain by the serious writers.

I begin writing short stories in my free time that aren’t submitted as assessments and enter them in competitions.

8

In 2011 I discover Stephen King novels. I attempt horror in my short stories.

comicvine.com
comicvine.com

My first short story is published. Lonely Leather is shortlisted in a competition and is published in Wet Ink . I earn $75. The protagonist’s uncle is a rich author who commits suicide at the end.

I brag about it in my creative writing class. Being published in Wet Ink (no longer existing) is a big deal. My lecturer is impressed. Two days later I receive an invitation to join the lecturers, PhD and master students to a nearby island for a writers retreat. I will be mentored by Australian author Frank Moorhouse.

I meet author and lecturer Sally Breen. She holds a cocktail while she raves about my writing. Nobody has encouraged my writing as much as she had before while knowing what they are talking about.

She organises a select group of students to volunteer at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali. The university pays for the trip, because it’s technically part of a subject. All I have to do is write an essay of what I learned.

9

At the festival I hire a moped, taste frogs legs, enter the poetry slam, and have one date with an Indonesian girl.

When we fly back to Brisbane I wear a bamboo hat and golden baggy pants I bought at the Ubud markets.

ubud-green2

I miss the last train and I’m stranded in the city alone. I go to the 24 hour Hungry Jacks and buy a juice so I can sit inside. To pass the early hours I start writing a love story to the girl I dated the one time.

It’s part poetry I suppose, but it was more a rant which includes:

I love you. I miss you. I want you. Oh, I’m full of shit. I miss you now at 10 past 2, but are your eyes a blue or brown? I want you, but what’s your name again? Yeah, I know, it’s Carley and your eyes are hazel, your hair is blonde, but a year ago your name was Tahlia. Your eyes were blue. Every time I wish you’d die, you’d come again a different form. Renewed again, you black cat-phoenix.

I submit the poem as my assignment and I get a HD – top of the class.

10

At some stage I resent writing. It was to be an expression of self-sabotage but  somehow it became the only way I could communicate. People misunderstood my body language all my life.

I wanted to walk into a room of strangers and be their centre of attention. I didn’t want to be the life of the party. I wanted the life of the party. It was captivation I wished for. Writing gave me nothing, I felt.

Who is this Russell Brand. Hey! He’s a comedian. Why don’t you try comedy? Does Brisbane have comedy?

Yes.

I took lessons and began the circuit. Some nights I’m crap and other nights I have applause. There’s a power I feel when I’m on stage and can’t do anything wrong. The laughs escalate. One poor choice of words will still increase the laughs. I am liked. Loved. I drive home most nights of the week at 1am. Adrenaline pumps. I turn the lights off and have a new idea for a joke. I write it down.

I develop insomnia. Only black and white Doctor Who can put me to sleep.

One night I attend a writer’s function with uni friends. I read one of my poems.

“I decree that I forsee that at 33 I’ll die of cancer of the pancreatic sort.”

Somehow my delivery has changed. The room laughs at what should be intense themes. Sally is disappointed at me.

I do some self-reflecting. I’m a Pizza Hut delivery driver who can’t even afford a GPS. It means I flick through my maps with a spotlight before I start driving with the pizza in the back seat. I make $2 an hour on weekends. Week nights are reserved for stand-up comedy gigs. I get three or four a week but make no money. Driving to the gigs costs the taxpayer.

I apply for  reporter jobs across the country. I receive a job at a weekly paper in a coal mining town in WA. I accept the job. Goodbye comedy friends. Goodbye writers. I drive from Brisbane, to Adelaide, to Perth in six days.

11

In his glory days my boss used to control all the Fairfax papers in WA. Because of internal struggles and disagreements which likely involve the new policies of internet, he is demoted to control of the minor weekly papers from the small town we both live in.

There is resent. He hates the job and lives for the weekend. On his mahogany desk there is a small sign that says “born to golf. Forced to work.”

By Gary Smith
By Gary Smith

The boss hated my writing. He thought it fancy. It was long winded and had little precision. When you have found your creative writing voice it is difficult to chance style. Removing the unnecessary ‘that’ and ‘the’ and ‘really’ was a difficult concept.

 I worked weekends for free to make my Mondays and Tuesdays easier. I learnt to write faster and not procrastinate as much. I toured coal mines, attended court where I watched a prosecutor yell at a defendant accused of assault, and interview the parents of a boy who died in tragic circumstances.

 My creative writing slowed. My murder mystery novel was taking too long to write.  My short stories including Aliens Play Aussie Rules rejected. My achievements like winning the town’s literature awards and shortlisting for the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards  not seeming enough.

I quit without another job lined up. This is a big mistake in journalism. I did not care. I hated journalism. I wanted work somewhere else. I wanted to return to comedy.

12

I lasted eight months without needing the dole. I burned through the savings and start sharing a house with grandma. I develop a blog called Hail to the Monkey King.  I apply for a spot at the WA Academy of Performing Arts. I milked my stand-up comedy experience for what it was worth. Big mistake. The teachers judging my audition disliked it. They act like a creative writing tutor learning their student wants to write about vampires.

Everything I try for doesn’t happen. I have no retail experience and there’s fewer comedy gigs I can get in Perth.

I miss Qld.

13

I take a job at a daily paper in North West Qld.

Each day more than 2000 people read my news articles. They recognise my name.

But the articles I write do not belong to me. They are not my stories. I write them because I am paid to do so.

On weekends my head is focused on the next scene of my fantasy novel about killer robots locking children in a booby trapped fun park.

bigthink.com
bigthink.com

Sure it’s genre fiction but it’s an old idea from my late teen years I’m developing. I don’t want to be a serious writer for a while. There’s enough of that during the week.

Bears, bad-ass juveniles, and pregnant moons (my writing journey)

1

My psychologist in primary school had these cards with pictures of bears on them. There were bears of all types. There were angry bears, happy bears, small bears, muscular bears, mother bears. You put the cards into rings to prop them up.

It was like playing with toys. I would use the bears to narrate how I was feeling. It’s called sandbox therapy but I used it to vent stories. The psychologist would write it down and ended up typing it up for me. My story became sequels. I cannot remember the shape of the stories and whether they were tragic, or if any of the bears died. I think there was a scary forest where they all got lost at one stage.

defenders.org
defenders.org

After my brother and I watched Phantom Menace at the cinemas I began writing space opera. It was hardly original work. There were laser swords, an evil magician who would die at the end of each story but who would somehow come back to life at the beginning of the next story. By the end of the epic series he was nothing but an amputated skeleton in armor who needed to use telekinesis to fight with his laser sword.

comicvine.com
comicvine.com

Mum read sections of it and told me off for ripping off Star Wars.

2

I was 10 when I moved into my foster home. We lived in the bush and had no car. There was nothing to do on the property unless you liked horses. But there were books on a shelf in my bedroom. I discovered Treasure Island, The Hobbit, and other books I cannot remember.

I didn’t write so much, except for the mandatory stories in English class. They set the themes.  One theme we were given was “the day the sun didn’t come up.”

Other kids were cute. They used fireworks to bring the sun back.  But I personified my sun. My character flew into another galaxy, where the moon was in labour pains with baby sun.

Dad sun pissed off somewhere and baby sun came back to our galaxy. The end.

crystallinks.com
crystallinks.com

The teachers didn’t publish  that one in the school magazine.

But there was another lengthy story. It was a tragic drama. You know how in the first 20 pages of The Philosopher’s Stone where Harry’s life is depressing and miserable? That was my story. It was a more intense version of Series of Unfortunate Events. The boy’s parents died or had accidents making them disabled. His friends died and the cubby house was burnt down. Even his foster mother was murdered.

My real foster mother hated the story. She thought it depressing.

I started writing a porno instead but my foster dad found it and read it aloud to everyone. What a jerk. It wasn’t ready to be shared. It was only the first draft.

3

The  Tomorrow When the War Began series changed my life. I was 15 when I started reading, and even though it bored me the first 30 pages I became addicted. John Marsden influenced my voice more than anyone else. His tormented character Ellie Linton taught me the power of first person emotion. It was a disadvantage in later years as a journalist. His commas were excessive and his sentence structure windy.

But because of Mr Marsden I found my voice before I knew how to write structurally.

tomorrow-when-the-war-began

I started writing a book about teenagers in criminal gangs at high school. They fought for secret bases, hang-outs, and black market businesses. Their weapons were bow staffs and water pistols filled with Tabasco sauce. I kid you not.

4

In Writing Effectively I earned a High Distinction.  This was in my first semester of my Bachelor of Arts. It’s nothing to brag about. The lecturer gave everyone HDs at the Logan campus because he didn’t want to bother marking our assignments. We wrote weekly essays about 200 words in length and brought them to class.

Once he wanted to read somebody’s essay to the class. He rifled through the papers and picked mine out. “This could get interesting,” I thought. It was a three paragraph piece called Why We Eat Chocolate Easter Eggs. The exercise was linking three paragraphs together. I didn’t think anyone but the Irish Catholic lecturer would be reading it.

“Can I read yours, Chris?”

“Um. Sure.”

I cannot remember what the first paragraph was, but it was safe and non-religious. “This is brilliant,” he said, finishing the paragraph. “Perfect.”

“Thank you,” I said nervously. And he read the second paragraph. When he finished he gasped.

“This is even better! Listen everyone, this is exactly what I’m telling you to do. This is absolutely brilliant. Chris has just shown us perfectly how to link the paragraph and make the next line engaging. Do you see?”

And then he read the third paragraph. “But when you eat these chocolate Easter eggs, remember it is to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.” His voice darkened. “He died for our sins.”

He glared at me. “This is shit. What you’ve just done – only a wanker would do what you just did.” The lecturer shoved it down. It was no longer an example of a perfect essay.

This was in 2008. In the second semester I receive a Pass in Creative Writing 1. My lecturer also embarrasses me in my oral assignment because I didn’t know the difference between paraphrasing and referencing.

I read a futuristic story I was working on about a barbarian who is tamed and pushed into the World Emperor’s inner social circle for political motives.  Think Battlefield Earth but without the aliens.

My teacher couldn’t hide the smirk.

 To be continued.

I was fostered

I CRIED when I wrote the last part of this post. Good. It proves to me these words aren’t bullshit.

I don’t tell many people I spent three years in a foster home. I used to when I was younger, but those I told were too sympathetic.

They were sympathetic because they didn’t know how to act. I made them uncomfortable, and so I stopped.

I converted to Christianity in my mid-teens and in time my behaviour stabilised. I resented my peers and former teachers who would say “you’ve come so far” when I visited them. It seemed patronising.

I wanted to move on.

And for a while I almost forgot I had a childhood. The phrase “born again” bandied about when I became a Christian probably didn’t help.

If there was one internal struggle I overcame during the year volunteering for the Salvation Army, it was working with the Melbourne Children’s Court. In fact, working with the children there probably played a big part in my healing process.

Children's Court

There was an arrangement with the Salvation Army to send two Order members on court days to entertain the children while their parents and guardians faced court for various reasons.

We were given a tour when the flashbacks happened. They came without warning. It came as a shock to the 19-year-old who thought he had mastered his memories and resolved his past.

It was the smells and the sense of despair in the building. The cigarettes being lighted by lawyers and social workers in the court yard. The swearing and despair of the guardians lined by the courtroom doors. The police and their uniforms. The young children not comprehending the significance of what was happening waiting impatiently in the playroom. I saw these children as miniature versions of myself.

I could see from their eyes. I saw a grown up in a Salvation Army uniform staring down at me. He had pimples. A light moustache. And when I blinked I recognised this man as myself – 10 years after DOCS workers arranged with magistrates what was to be done with my own life. I was a child again, the barrier I created and the years I took to mentally build it vanishing.

This was me in 2009.
This was me in 2009.

As a child I hardly ever attended court. Once I wanted to. But a smartarse DOCS worker lied to me and said it wasn’t like the movies and that I would find it boring. In hindsight, he didn’t want to me go because I was unpredictable and could interfere with the structure. But I wanted control of my life. And I should have been given permission to go.

But the feel of the court building was the same out-of-control feelings I felt as a child. I wanted to save these children. And I knew I couldn’t.

 …

One of my favourite daydreams is how I get to time travel to when I was 10-years-old. I would entertain Past-Chris, talk him out of starving himself, defend against the irritating adults who just wanted to control my behaviour to make their own lives easier.

I first had this daydream when I was fostered. But now Future-Chris doesn’t seem a mysterious and Godlike figure. I am the Future-Chris.

Too bad Future-Chris is an idiot! Pictured at the Melbourne Zoo with J-, 2009.
Too bad Future-Chris is an idiot! Pictured at the Melbourne Zoo with J-, 2009.

 …

I refused for weeks to visit the children’s court. I made excuses when it was my turn to attend. It made me sick even thinking of doing it. The other Order members would return from the sessions and talk about it, no problem at all. I preferred labouring in the drop-in centre or the kitchen preparing food for 100s of meals.

And at last, my course supervisor made me attend children’s court. I was given no choice. In the months that followed I was made to complete duties I did not want to do, due to psychological problems or because of sickness or exhaustion. I resent most of the times the supervisor made me do these things. But it was the best thing for me to attend children’s court.

Soon I learnt to love it. I loved children and could engage with them easily. We played games like “dead fish” or hide-and-seek or build cars or robots from blocks. I saw myself as an older brother for these children, these little girls and boys, regardless of if I had them for two minutes, or for thirty. And for a moment I could imagine I myself in my lonely years had an older brother just like the young man in the Salvation Army uniform.