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This Is Not A Love Story

Marrickville at dawn. Photo: Brian Yap. Distributed under creative commons license.

1

When I started writing, really writing, I treated it like a sport, like basketball. It was 2008, and I practiced my sentences in the way that I practiced lay ups: ferociously, and from first light until dusk. I told myself that if I wrote enough and believed enough then I might be able to convince others to believe it too. I told myself if I could build the muscle memory, train the neck and throat of my sentences, then one day I would be able to make them sing. I wanted to make things up and get paid for it. I wanted to create funny stories that connected people and ideas and places even if, in the end, they weren’t funny at all.

2

I wrote my first short story: an obnoxious, highly-plagiarised, boring attempt at Roald Dahl drafted over the course of two weeks at Glebe Library. I wrote it by hand and when the story was done I wrote it out again, word for word. The transcribing took hours and I called it my second draft. Never mind that nothing had changed. It didn’t matter. It was about the feeling, the time, to just be there spending time with the work.

3

My girlfriend, then, wasisan extremely talented artist who agreed to illustrate the stories. There were nine copies in all, and we sold them for $5 each at the East Sydney Hotel. The story, now, would be worthless, but the artist’s work has appreciated considerably. This was back in 2010, which meant we were children: creative and hungry and ready to learn. I’d never spent much time around artists, real artists, but my girlfriend’s father was an extremely successful one: a painter, a musician, a poet. So you want to be a writer? he asked one evening when the rest of the family had left the kitchen. Yes, I said, quickly, earnestly. Not a lot of money in that, he said, laughing, and then I laughed too, because he was right, and because the way I’d said yes seemed brash, sure, serious, but so absolutely indicative of what I wanted to become that laughter was all I could do. But then he stopped laughing and looked me in the eye. Well, he said. If you work hard and you have a whole lot … and I mean a whole lot of luck … maybe … just maybe … it might save your life. So here’s $5. Good luck. I took the note and put it in my wallet. Thanked him profusely. Then had trouble looking him in the eye. It was the first time I’d ever been paid for my work. And it meant something, not so much the money, but the gesture, the permission: the permission to express ideas and to write, to share them, to converse and talk.

4

Three months ago I was asked by the Sydney Review of Books to review Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change. At first, I was confused. Surely, there was someone more qualified than me. My debut book, Lion Attack!, had been published in 2015, but since then I had hardly published anything at all: a couple of interviews, a story, a reflection on mental health and a memoriam to my cousin’s suicide. In many ways, I had turned my back on literature, not by choice, but by force.

What happened to you? Luke Carman asked recently after a reading I had organised in Newtown. You were everywhere. And then you disappeared. I told him I had a migraine. A real knock out. It lasted ten months. And I wanted to die.

5

In 2011 I began a degree in Creative Writing at RMIT in Melbourne. There were eighty of us, perhaps more, and I remember Francesca Rendle-Short stood in front of the cohort and said, The average wage of a writer in Australia is $13,000 a year. Look around. Statistically speaking, it’s entirely probably that none of you will publish a book. So we looked around. We grinned. Surely not, we thought, or I thought. I’d read all The Paris Review interviews with the famous authors. I knew there were tricks. Surely, it was possible to write better, to write more, to earn more. So I worked. In the mornings, I wrote. And in my lunch breaks, I wrote. And, in the evenings or early mornings, after packing down the bar, I wrote too. I wrote a thousand words a day every day for three years and then I wrote some more. When I wasn’t writing, I read. I treated it like a job. I became, I suppose, obsessed, the way I told myself I had to be if I wanted any success. I felt myself becoming something, someone. Not a writer, though. I was young, but I knew the first rule about writing was that you never called yourself a writer.

6

Besides, calling yourself a writer seemed serious, and seriousness terrified me. At readings I measured my success by laughs. One evening I read alongside the author and poet Josephine Rowe. Josephine and I later became friends, but at the time she didn’t like my work; she thought it was crude and juvenile. She was correct. But that evening I read a serious piece about growing up in America and she came up to me and said, Your other work is rubbish, but that was quite good. I can’t remember if she said that exactly, but I remember the sentiment, and it moved me. The work had been taken seriously, which meant that I had been taken seriously. I suppose, in the future, that would become a problem: that lack of demarcation between work and author, but at the time I celebrated.

7

The following writers changed me: Elizabeth Ellen, Tom Cho, Romy Ash, Sam Pink, Karl Taro Greenfeld, Tao Lin.

These were young writers, some local, and at night I would stay up late trying to emulate their words. I would underline their sentences and write in the margins, making notes on voice, on what voice could do, on character, and how they made their sentences sing. These were HOLY SHIT moments: observing, for the first time, the way a sentence could leap from humour to sadness, the shift within a paragraph from the deadpan for absurd, or what seemed absurd to me, then. These were stories filled with life and love and want and desire and I knew it was special to encounter these teachers at the beginning of my career. Often, I would write with their books open in front of me like literary maps in case I got lost. I wonder, now, at what point this happens for other writers, when we stop reading for pleasure, but to view the magic trick, the nuts and bolts, the factory of it: when we read not to relax but to learn, to pull the red cloth aside.

8

How do you review a silence? In 2014, Tao Lin was accused of statutory rape and emotional abuse. In 2018, Tao Lin released a nonfictional book titled Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change. In the years between, the survivor has said publicly, definitively they want nothing more to do with that story. So that story ends here.

9

Emilie Friedlander, writing in The Fader: Alt lit was literature that felt more in line with my life than anything I’d read in school. It was literature that actually captured what it felt like to me, a person in her twenties who lives in a big city and wants to connect with other people and spends most of her time working (and socializing) on the internet. It didn’t seem to obey any rules, other than a seeming faithfulness in its own recurring obsessions: sex, drug use, depression, loneliness, community. It collapsed lived experience into art, with a boldness that made you wonder whether there ever needed to be a difference in the first place.

10

An interview with Alejandro Zambra was published by The Rumpus:  You can say that literature is about topics like love, death and all that, but I think there is only one topic that applies to all literature and that is belonging. There is a me, there is a we, there is an us, and we want to belong to it or we don’t want to belong.

I believed, then, so passionately in that scene formerly known as Alt Lit, in the community and the work, in these people who I’d never met who even so felt like family. I’d rarely felt that sense of community in Australia, and I looked up to these people as teachers, as mentors. I’d never had a mentor, either, not really, other than Geoff Lemon and the late Kat Muscat, who was younger and infinitely, infinitely wiser. I remember one evening Kat and I shared a cigarette in the gutter outside a party. She asked me how I was, how my writing was going. And it seems silly, now, or maybe it doesn’t, but I told her a story about a festival director who had humiliated me in front of a group of writers I’d admired. Fuck those arseholes, Kat said, her arm around me. Yeah, I said, sobbing, and then we were laughing, because I told her Katia and I had stolen a plant from the festival entrance in protest. It seemed ludicrous, suddenly, to play this game, to get noticed, to impress, to network, to publish in this tiny pocket of the world, the Melbourne literary scene, that didn’t give a damn, that I thought controlled something, the world, or the world I wanted to inhabit, then.

11

In 2014, Emmie, Emilia, sometimes Emma, and I lived in that apartment in Marrickville with the neighbour who kept trying to cough the cancer out. We would come home and flip the light on and watch the cockroaches scatter.

Sometimes, we held public readings. Occasionally, privately, we shared our work. I remember sitting. All of us: writing, reading, drinking, smoking. We were poets and writers, back when we had the audacity to believe we could be such things. We were young and we were on the internet and we were in love with the written word. We had all studied, or were studying, writing and literature at university, but the books and texts we were reading seemed boring compared to the library the girls had amassed in their living room.

When I think, now, why we were so obsessed with that scene known as Alt Lit perhaps it was because we could see ourselves in those stories, those poems. Books by Gabby Bess, Tao Lin, Sarah Jean Alexander, Jordan Castro, ER Kennedy, Mira Gonzalez, Sam Pink, Stacey Teague and Megan Boyle were the foundations of who we became as writers, because we felt like they understood us, were us. We were connected virtually to a group, a movement, across oceans, largely ignored, occasionally attacked, by the mainstream literary press. And because they were publishing, we thought: maybe we could do that too. It was intoxicating to think, then, in our redbrick apartment in Marrickville that we were no different to those writers, the real writers whose books were stacked in piles on our hardwood floors.

12

This is not an essay or a book review. This is a love story. I fell in love with writing, and then I stopped. I’m trying to figure out what happened, and whether I can fall in love again.

13

Here’s the brief version: I wrote a lot, and failed a lot, and wrote some more, and succeeded a little, and failed a lot, and succeeded a little, and five years later, after two failed novels, two-hundred-thousand failed words, I emerged with two thousand words that became the opening chapters of my debut book. I wrote the rest of the book in three months, rarely stopping, barely editing, not thinking, as if high, as if the words weren’t my words, as if I were merely an instrument, transcribing, but with the knowledge that if I didn’t write them they would, and I would, disappear.

In 2015, Scribe Publications published Lion Attack!.

Then I suffered a 10-month-long migraine, or a tension headache, or I had a breakdown. I don’t know. For ten months, the pain was constant, exacerbated by writing, reading, using computers, looking at phones or anything with a screen.

Two things happened: I became a writer who no longer wrote, and a person who could no longer could communicate with the modern world. In literature, and life, I began to disappear.

14

There were signs. In 2013, I was sitting in my room on Canning Street trying to write a final year university essay that I had titled If You Give Up, Fuck You when my eyes started burning and my temples started burning and my forehead started burning. Everything went dim and everything went dull. Then I felt like I was being smashed in the back of the head by a shovel or a brick.

But I kept going.

I tried to type, closing my eyes. I tried to type, squinting. I tried to check if the words on the document made any sense, but every time I looked at the screen the pain grew worse.

So I put on my shoes and walked to the chemist. The lady behind the counter asked how she could help and I pointed to my head. I said my head hurt and then I smiled a weird smile because I wanted to make a good impression. They’d been cracking down on codeine lately and I knew I looked shitty. But the lady just stood there with her hands on her hips. I really think I’ve got a migraine, I said, and then I did this little laugh. It feels like I’ve been hit in the head with a shovel. Then the lady’s face changed. She said, Oh darling, I get them too. And then she disappeared to the backroom.

When she returned she handed me some muscle relaxants and migraine medication. She told me to take the muscle relaxants with the migraine medication and then she recommended water. She recommended hot showers. She said, I hope it goes away so you can sleep.

On the street outside the chemist I took the muscle relaxants and the migraine medications. I waited. I kept thinking about my stupid assignment. I kept thinking that it was due the next day and then I started breathing all heavy because I knew I couldn’t do it and I knew how dumb it all sounded. I knew it sounded so dumb no one would ever believe it. Then I got home and lay on my bed and waited for my head to stop hurting. I looked at the ceiling and hid under the covers.

15

In 2014, I published If You Give Up, Fuck You on Facebook. It was an essay about hopes and dreams and goals and beliefs and not letting anybody fuck with your shit.

Reading the essay now feels like returning to the bedroom of my adolescence, the one I shared with my brother with the posters of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan on the wall. It makes me cringe but it also has an innocence that I wouldn’t be able to recreate now. There is drive, ambition, an American enthusiasm and self-confidence that would later be confused, perhaps, rightly so, for arrogance.

I willed that motherfucker into existence, I told musician and best guy Sam Hales recently. I wrote ten hours a day, every day. I visualised it. I saw myself holding it.

16

In 2014, I received a grant that allowed me to travel to the United States and Canada on a reading tour. I’d made a post on Facebook that said I would go anywhere as long as there was a bed or floor to sleep on, and someone to organise the reading. I went to Los Angeles, Portland, Oakland, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Houston, Austin, Denton, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago and Minneapolis.

I met writers. I met readers.

The writers I stayed with introduced me to their friends, their writers, and we travelled in groups. We read in bookstores and warehouses and bars and apartments. We read at parties and colleges. Sometimes we read to ten people and sometimes we read to 150 people, but it felt like something, this community, this rite of passage, this pilgrimage made famous, for better or worse, by so many antipodeans before. People were hungry for words, story, literature, and before everything fell apart it seemed, briefly, that what we were doing mattered, that we were on the forefront of something, that these stories about us and the internet could cure us, or distract us, from the isolation and loneliness imposed by the newly, digitally, connected world. Make no mistake, a poet said in Los Angeles at the beginning of my trip. People will study our Facebook messages and posts and G-Chat conversations for college in the future. And for a while we even believed her too.

17

I felt estranged from the Australian literary scene. So I looked elsewhere. I found a group of people on the internet from everywhere, including Australia, publishing and writing and it meant something, to be included, then. We published stories on Facebook or Tumblr or we published on websites or we watched one another read on YouTube or livefeeds. We chatted, gave feedback.

The scene, like all scenes, like all people, was not good or bad. It was toxic and supportive and elitist and welcoming. It was full of hate and love. The scene was an experiment. We were depressed and excited and scared and motivated. We were anxious.

Alt Lit preferred bleak narratives, those dark, sometimes humorous, narratives because they seemed relevant, or at least they seemed more real than the stories being generated by social media or traditional publishing. We were the last demographic to exist before the Internet, and perhaps we were trying to make sense of that too. In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari writes, ‘The internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The net arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing –Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that every status update is just a variation of a single request: Would someone please acknowledge me?’ To many, I think, the world seemed and still seems fractured. And for a while, in the literary sense, I suppose, for some, there was a place to fit in.

18

Looking back, I see the attraction, but the lifestyle: living online further isolated the already isolated. An online community of depressed individuals who sat by themselves in bedrooms staring at computers and writing stories about the meaninglessness of life. I think, now, those pseudo-connections only made the loneliness worse. Hari writes, ‘Feeling lonely, as it turns out, caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar – as much as some of the most disturbing things that can happen to you. Being acutely lonely, the experiment found, was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack. It’s worth repeating – being deeply lonely seemed to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.’

19

2014: Alt Lit collapsed. Several prominent members of the scene were accused of rape, statutory rape, psychological and emotional abuse. Of course, I do not, could not, know the trauma of those victims, but I watched, like many others, from computers, across states and countries in sadness, in horror; Facebook feeds and websites filled with anger and support. Dialogues appeared: on consent and respect. For a while, it seemed, we could learn. Then more were accused, and there was only despair. Facebook groups were archived. People left. The scene which had once promised so much, was now, suddenly, publicly, no different from all the others. Or, perhaps, it had always been this way. I just couldn’t see it.

20

2015: I was 27, living in Sydney, earning $25,000 a year. I was between homes, staying at Toby’s house and sleeping in his bed. I had a book deal. I published on Facebook. I was arrogant. I was lonely. I had few role models. I cared too much about what others thought. I prioritised writing over health, relationships and food. I became an addict to the work. There was little or no separation between the work I was publishing and myself, or the idea I had of myself. My ego grew. I became serious. I became the work, and when people commented, tweeted uncritically, negatively: that I was childish, that I was naïve, that I was a joke, I took it to heart.

I was marooned between an online community that no longer existed and a local community in which I was loved and loathed. I told myself it was good to be loved and loathed, and that I didn’t need anyone, that I could go it alone. I wanted success. But I forgot to define, for myself, what success was. I see, now, that I lost my ideological reasons for writing in the first place. I told myself that if I could just get my book published then I would be accepted and money would flow, and, in doing so, I ignored the panic attacks, early headaches and sleepless nights.

These were signs. They were saying: stop writing you dumb fucking fuck. But I just wrote more. My book was published.

21

Here is how the book industry works: somehow, you escape the slush pile. For me, I won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize For Young Writers. Then you are offered a contract, an advance. That advance is an advance against earnings and the figure generally hovers between $0 and $1,000,000. I received a $3000 dollar advance for my debut book. A standard contract, my contract, allows the author to earn 10 per cent of a book’s RRP, or, roughly, $3 per book. This meant I had to sell, roughly, 1000 books – assuming a fixed RRP – before making further money. To become a bestseller, you need to sell 5000 copies in a relatively short time frame. At $30 a book at the standard 10 per cent commission, a bestselling author earns $15000 after 5000 sales, minus their advance. As of December 2017, including e-books, I had sold 1038 books, which means I still owe $692.32 to my publisher from their initial investment. Or, roughly, I need to sell another 250 books before additional earnings. Of course, there are writer’s festivals. There are audio books. There are commissions, like this one. When books appear in a bookstores it looks like the author has made it. But this is largely untrue. We work other jobs. Writing is a privilege, we are told; we tell ourselves. We are lucky to get published at all.

22

After my book was published, I cried for days. Suddenly, the very thing I had defined myself by, the work, was no longer mine.

23

At the airport, flying to Melbourne for my book launch, the migraine returned, without warning, with force. I was working on a short story when my neck started hurting and my eyes started hurting and my head started hurting. And I thought this: oh no. And I thought this: not again. And I thought this: fuck. I grew dizzy. I began to sweat. I walked to the bathroom and splashed water on my face. Looked in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot and my head veins were sticking out and I kept imagining a tiny version of myself smashing my frontal lobe.

That migraine lasted three days but I don’t want to talk about that migraine. I want to talk about that sentence: I kept imagining a tiny version of myself smashing my frontal lobe. I wrote that sentence for another migraine story I published in the now defunct Australian Rolling Stone in 2016. The description is accurate, but it is only now that I am paying attention to the words that I hear the self-sabotage. It is only now that I am thinking about another story I wrote for Shabby Doll House in the middle of 2014, a ghost story, where I talk about my friend Julian, and the brain damage he suffered after a car crash, and the guilt I felt for no longer being in his life, for living in a different city, for drifting apart. In that story, Julian’s character, his ghost, enters my room and says, I have accepted these truths: that dumb, meaningless things happen all the time and the world is flawed and that I am flawed too. But then his character says this, And so I ask you, Oliver: what are you afraid of? And I say, What terrifies me the most is failing or becoming incapable of doing the things I love.

The next migraine arrived one month after the airport migraine, eight months after the ghost story. It lasted ten months.

24

Years later, when I began to write, again, I wrote small stories, no longer than a paragraph. I had forgotten how to write real stories, long stories, or was scared to, which amounts to the same thing. At some point, I told myself, literature had become boring. But that wasn’t true. Literature had become terrifying, and I had become scared: of sitting, of typing, of inventing, of remembering, of trying to remember.

25

Here’s what I remember: I remember Toby’s mum was away and we were housesitting her house. There was a party. We dressed in her dresses and put coke and ketamine up our noses and boxed wine and rum and beer down our throats. Baths filled with water and people smoked and laughed and drank. Toby wore lipstick and I cried in the spare room because I wanted to wear lipstick too. I cried because I wanted my head to stop hurting and I wanted to feel normal and then I muffled my cries because I didn’t want anyone to hear. I didn’t want anyone to know that the migraine had returned and I didn’t want Maria to know that I was blind once more. That’s what we called it: my blindness. Things had been going so well lately and I didn’t want to let her down. So I clenched my fists and took a breath and held it in. Then I told myself to breathe. I told myself everything would be okay and that everything was temporary and that pain was temporary too. Then I closed my eyes and said, When you open your eyes everything will be better, and it wasn’t. Then I told myself that when I woke up everything would be different, and it wasn’t. Then Toby came in and asked if everything was okay and I said it was even though it wasn’t.

26

The next morning I let the dogs out. I watched them piss and shit on the concrete. I hosed the piss and shit from the concrete and spread it around the grass. A great smell rose from the ground and I stared at the dogs and the dogs stared back. Then the stench made a home inside me and the migraine did too. So I took three painkillers. Then I took three more. Then I started giggling. I started giggling because I couldn’t feel anything anymore.

27

Listen: there are times when I don’t remember much, but occasionally I close my eyes and I see everything. I see it all.

28

Ten months later Mum flew to Sydney and we spent an afternoon drinking at the Lord Wolseley Hotel. I didn’t ask why she came. I didn’t have to. She’d heard my voice on the phone.

She asked if I wanted to talk about earlier that day when she found me crying in the bathroom and then she told me I could tell her anything. She told me shutting down was the easy thing, but the brave thing was to talk. She said I could cry if I wanted and it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter that a 29-year-old boy was at the pub crying with his mum.

So I breathed and I breathed and then I began to cry. I cried and people laughed and I told her I felt alone. I told her I felt scared and I wondered if she’d felt that? Then she said, Breathe, Oliver. Breathe, and I knew she had too. I tried to explain the pain in my head and I couldn’t, and I tried to imagine what I would do when I got home and I couldn’t, and then I buried my face in my hands and whispered, I just wish it would all go away. Mum squeezed my hand and told me she loved me. She told me she cared. I squeezed back. She said, I’ll always be there for you. You know that, right? and I told her I knew.

And then I was five again, and I’d fallen off my bike, and mum was asking me where it hurt. I’d rode my bike into the railing that overlooks Lake Burley Griffin, and I pointed at my knees. I was bleeding, a mess, one training wheel bent 45 degrees in the wrong direction, and mum kept asking strangers if they could help us. Can you help us? Can you help us? Can you help us? Can you? Then a bodybuilder bent my training wheels back and I couldn’t believe my bike was perfect again. I couldn’t believe magicians were real and knees could stop bleeding. I couldn’t believe all the bad things could go away you just had to ask.

And then I was 29 again, and my arms were reaching around my mother and I was crying into her shirt. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed her. I needed help. I said, Please, please, and my voice went all high and I said, I just … don’t know what to do. Then Mum held me told me I wasn’t alone. I held her tighter. I took two painkillers and they mixed with the alcohol and the six painkillers I’d taken before. I told her I was sorry. I wished she didn’t have to see. Mum held me. She kept saying, It’s okay, but I knew it wasn’t. She was sobbing, and I knew we were both in pain now. I knew the world was bullshit because there was pain inside all of us, even our mothers. So we sat there and I smoked another cigarette and drank another beer. Then I drank another beer. Then I drank another beer. Then I drank one more.

Then I began to laugh because it was almost like the pain was gone now. I began to laugh because we lived in a stupid world where all you had to do was put the terrible things inside you to feel good again once more. I laughed and I laughed because everyone was staring at screens and no one could see that the whole world was changing. No one could see the guy at the table beside us who woke in the middle of the night just to check Tinder, just to check Messenger, just to check if someone cared. And no one could see the girl who checked her messages every five minutes because the guy she fucked had seen her message but hadn’t written back. And no one could see me either. No one could see me because I was invisible, and I laughed because the world was telling a new story now, and no one knew what it was.

29

Gerald Murnane in conversation with Sean O’Beirne at the Wheeler Centre: ‘The feeling when you are struck down by tragedy, and there would be many people here listening who have had that happen to them, the feeling is that you are sort of singled out and separate, that other people would never understand the thing you have been through.’

To what end do the fictions of our mind dictate our behaviours, our thoughts and feelings, our perceptions of the world we understand to be true? It sounds obvious, now, to answer: a great deal, but at the time, during those ten months, I had no idea. The mechanisms through which I created: blindly, playfully, had broken and in the place of creation there was only fear: of judgement, of rejection, which now, I tell myself, manifested as pain. But maybe that’s all bullshit too. Perhaps our bodies just weren’t designed to spend ten hours at a time in sedentary positions undertaking repetitive tasks. Perhaps I was weak, as an optometrist told me, smiling, when he explained I had blown out my eyes, the visual system that allowed me to focus, to make sense of all the things in front of me that I could no longer see. I remember, each morning, sitting with a piece of string that I held in front of my nose. There were two beads, one close and one far away, and my eyes would jump from one to the other, training them, again, to converge.

30

I told you this was a love story.

But this is a trust story.

I’m learning how to trust my body, again, to sit, to write. I’m learning how to trust my mind to believe that the worlds that exist in my head can exist on the page too.

31

I like to think that I’m resilient, strong. I’m certainly stubborn. I like to think that I’m tough. But I also have to reconcile with the fact that something happened: a ten-month-long migraine? A breakdown? My body shut down.

I remember leaving Sydney, returning to Brisbane, to my parents’ house. On that first night I asked my dad if it was going to get better. Of course it will, he said. But for now let’s not worry about that. Let’s decide what we are going to have for dinner.

I suppose we write to make sense of the pain, not to add to it. But after the migraine went away, I still found it more or less impossible to sit, to type. I had to learn how to sit in chairs again, how to look at computers, books, at phones. Sitting at a computer, the act of writing, had caused the pain to begin with, at least in my head, and for many years after the migraine dissipated I still felt an extreme anxiety whenever I sat, or tried to sit, in front of the computer or laptop. Even the thought of writing or typing: on a phone or laptop or the page, when I wondered about the future, whether I would be able to message friends, work a job, look up a train timetable, would trigger a relapse and the pain would return. I would begin to sweat. Shake. It’s not going to be like last time, Mum would say. And then she’d tell me to repeat it. It’s not going to be like last time. It’s not going to be like last time. Sometimes, even now, the pain returns. But I just tell myself to breathe. I lie down. I massage my neck. I do my exercises. I stretch. And then I remind myself, again, it won’t be like last time. I remind myself that the stories we tell ourselves are the ones that become true.

32

Scott McClanahan: The only hope we have are our bodies. We’re all trapped in them and we all hate them, and it’s this reason why we’re comic and not tragic.

33

These days, I’m a slow writer. I listen to my body. I take breaks. I write with a pencil, in fragments, between stations, while working on the train. With the pen we became adolescents and with the computer, fully grown. But with the pencil we become children again.

On my 28th birthday, shortly before leaving Brisbane and returning to Sydney, Dad gave me a copy of THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN. Inside the cover, he wrote the following inscription, and with his permission, I would like to close this story and leave it with you.

Dear Oliver,

Some of my fondest memories of you as a little boy centred on our time together reading Tintin, with you on my lap, asking me to repeat my Captain Haddock rants, and all his colourful language. We made our way through many Tintin stories together, and on reflection, I think they were not only a great bonding time, but great therapy for me.

And now, years later, it occurs to me that they may be great therapy for you too. It is truly wonderful to escape into these adventures, pushing today’s worries to the background, and simply enjoying these creative and colourful characters. I hope they bring out the little boy in you again.

Love Dad.