When I was in my 20s, the only thing I wanted was to be a writer.
I got lucky. I connected with a mentor. Someone who would win the Pulitzer Prize. He’d actually go on to chair the Pulitzer Committee.
He found me a scholarship, flew me from Australia to the US. He personally mentored me, one on one.
I had to pinch myself: I was talking shop with my favourite author in the world. I’d read everything he’d published, even uncollected works. We were browsing used bookshops, talking books and writing non-stop.
I must’ve been so annoying. I had endless questions: influences, the process, how much of what he wrote was true…
The real question, though–it got caught in my throat every time I tried.
So we’d go back to talking about something else.
My last day, before heading home, to the airport, I said I had to ask one question before I left.
I blurted it out.
“Do you think I have what it takes?”
To be a writer, I meant.
He laughed. “Jesus, man, you scared me. You were acting so serious!”
Then he got serious:
“There’s no doubt. Go. Write. Finish your novel. There is no doubt. You’re a morning star. Burn.”
I flew home to Australia.
I wrote like a kid with something to prove. Because I was.
I banged out pages in a furious flurry. My wrists ached.
Nothing could stop me.
You know that song about Bryan Adams playing guitar till his fingers bled?
My fingers didn’t bleed–that’s not how typing works–but I fucken went for it.
In the Woolworths car park, I winced as I lifted grocery bags to my car.
I kept coding for hours with my PhD, and writing my novel after a long day of work.
I saw a doctor. Told him about the weakness in my hands, the pain.
Dude gave me some anti-inflammatories. Told me to take it easy a bit.
I dunno if you know this thing called ‘gymspo’… It’s short for ‘gym inspiration’ or something. Anway, there’s all of these crazy messages that young people get:
We hear stories about some Olympian who broke a bone and yet still finished their event, because that’s what separates champions from the rest of us.
I was mid-20s. It made sense. That’s how I’d gotten where I was.
Okay, you know where this is going.
I kept pushing through the pain.
My repetitive strain injury eventually got so bad it was hard to use chopsticks. (Do you know how embarrassing it is for an asian dude at a Vietnamese restaurant to ask for a fork? The waiters look at you like: ahhhh, okay, so you’re one of those guys).
Then one day, I couldn’t even brush my teeth.
Then I couldn’t use a spoon to feed myself. I was completely disabled.
I had to move back in with my Mum and Dad. They looked after me. A grown man, being fed by his parents, with a spoon, food on his face. Like a baby.
Here’s an observation that’s probably rather obvious to you. If you’re not a brash, ambitious 20 something, you already know what I’m talking about. You don’t need to read the rest of this article.
But if, by some chance, you are like a younger version of me, I’m writing this for you. No-one ever told me this, and I wish someone had:
When you go to a high school reunion, like a decade or two later after school, it’s cool to see where everyone has gone in life. The people who wanted something and kept at it–they nearly all got what they wanted, in one way or another.
Then there’s a particular handful of people, who don’t even go to the reunion. Instead, you bump into them on the street, and they smile, but they’re not super keen to catch up.
I was one of them, and I’ve seen it in others.
It’s always the same thing:
–Hey, how’ve you been? We all heard you were doing this amaaaazing thing…! –…ah, I had some health issues. I haven’t been super well, y’know?
And then they get it. A look of recognition.
Here’s a message for no-one but my younger self::
Imagine your little cousin said: “You’re hurting me!”
You wouldn’t keep doing what you were doing. You’d stop right away.
So why would you do that to yourself?
I should let you know: it worked out okay in the end.
My hands are fine, 100%. I’m typing this right now, blazing fast.
And I did end up becoming a writer. I’m writing on a Disney+ TV show right now, incredible actors and a whole team of amazing people bring my pages to life. Some producers have asked me to rewrite someone else’s feature film. I get paid to bounce ideas around with storytellers who were heroes of mine.
It was a close call for a little while there, though. And yeeeeeeeeeears of my life could’ve been so much less miserable.
Let me make the point:
Pain is one of the only ways your body can tell you if you’re pushing too hard and hurting yourself.
You can study all the greats. Practice and invite feedback. Get mentored.
But if your body gives out, that’s one of the easiest ways to torpedo all of your progress, your career, everything.
Just look after your body. It’s a crucial part of being a writer.
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