The kid next door is screaming again. It’s a scream that could melt the shell off a snail in the garden where he’s playing. Every day this kid drops a tantrum bomb on the neighbours. Or more specifically, on me. Because every day, I’m at home to hear his breakfast tantrum, his playing-outside tantrum, his dropping-food-on-the-floor tantrum, his one-in-the-morning tantrum. It must be the hardest life any two-year-old has been forced to endure. But I get it. When you’re choking on the mucus of the things you don’t understand, sometimes screaming seems like the only way to cope.
I used to have a job. Until I gave all that up ‘a few months ago’ to write a collection of poetry. Depending on your attitude toward jobs, you’ll think that quitting a paid writing gig at a modest lifestyle website is either a bold move or (in this climate) a bit stupid. It must’ve taken six weeks for me to break the news to my dad. My baby boomer dad has owned his business, working with his hands, running wires through roofs, for forty years. The words ‘content writing’ and ‘website management’ don’t mean much to him. But jobs do. Jobs make you money and money keeps you in Maslow’s good books when depressions hit.
It might be the Gen Y in me talking but if it hadn’t made me swell with envy to witness my friends nudging into their futures, success by cool success, maybe my job would’ve felt like enough. While they were scoring filmmaking grants, signing record deals, publishing research papers and developing medical technologies, I had the feeling that I was idling. Leaving my job was scary and hard but necessary decision. And yet I still hadn’t anticipated the psychological burden that it would become.
Let me expound:
Like Frida (minus the crippling physical disability), I spent the months after leaving my job in bed working on my first collection of poetry, in a room not quite three-by-three metres, in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. The early days were good, the way life as a jobless artist should be: waking up after my housemates had left for work (hah, that hamster wheel!), eating breakfast, reading poetry, eventually being ready to put on a bra and get to work. If I went out during the day it was to work in a café or at the library. I put money towards applying for residencies and submitting to awards. I had my trusty spreadsheet listing competition, magazine and residency deadlines. I wrote a lot of poetry and ticked off a lot of opportunities.
But writing is a lonely business. Especially when, day-after-day, you are trying to write meaningful poetry about stuff you are barely able to live through. Along with trying to demonstrate my deservedness to be an unemployed poet by actually writing poetry, I was dealing with enormous heartbreak. Just weeks after entering the period of my Great Poetic Endeavour, one of the most significant people to have entered my life, left. Suddenly, the person who made me feel like I could do anything, who was my advisor and my inspiration, wasn’t there to see me through. I was on my own.
I remember resisting the unravelling of my emotional state for some time, before succumbing to the self-doubt and isolation anyway. In the midwinter, when my housemates had all left for work, I felt alone and unworthy. In the latter days, there were days I didn’t change out of my pyjamas and hardly ate, but I was still writing, so it was fine. I routinely sent cool messages to friends asking if they were ‘free to hang out later’. Like, only if they were free. No biggie. But being so convincingly cool delivered me equally cool responses. ‘Sorry, I can’t but what about next week?’ Despite myself, was I leaking some kind of friend-repelling desperation juice? I could see those Judases now all in one big group at the pub. All of them, even the ones who’d never met before. Laughing. Together. Without me. Meanwhile, I stayed in my room and wrote about my feelings like an emo teenage girl. And the kid next door kept screaming.
A few times, I screamed back at the kid. Who gave him permission to make that sound, to scream as if he knew real suffering?
It took about two months for me to lose my shit completely. I started to think maybe I wasn’t cut out to succeed at anything as ambitious as writing a book. I remember mornings waking up and feeling disappointed about it. These days writhing in bed for hours like a depressed Exorcist victim was preferable to the actual guilt of escapist-sleeping until midday. I think of this time as occurring in fog. I hate-used Tinder in long bouts, watched too much crap TV, cried a lot and wished that somebody other than my dad (offering to bring around leftovers) would text. I had no business leaving the house, since I had run out of money and already owed rent to my housemate. I felt guilty that visiting my parents often resulted in a few bank-fresh notes being pressed into my hand. I kept up the pretence of writing poetry but my fingers were starting to hurt.
You might think existential anxiety would provide a fruitful environment for creating poetry. Anguish is synonymous with some of the most respected names and titles in literature. I’ve always imagined that if only I were a little more reclusive, a little more messed up, a little more willing to lose an ear for my art, maybe I would be great too. But it was not the case. Writing authentic poetry for me involves resting a long time with a notion or feeling; asking it to take the wheel. The reason I could not write poetry of any authenticity during my lowest time was because giving the emotions more focus seemed like a quick drop to further ruin. I suppose by that point I recognised the importance of my own mental stability over the art. I liked my ears where they were.
It was in these darkest of times that the fruits of my labours revealed themselves: my poetry had been accepted in two publications, one exhibition and recognised in an award. An application I had submitted for a one-week poet’s residency on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts had also been accepted. I was seeing that input lead to positive output, like something you could count on. In a way, it had been so easy.
For a minute, I was excited to think about how things were taking off. I thought escaping Melbourne for summer in the US would be my deliverance. I planned to spend one week in the residency program then a further two weeks on the coast of Cape Cod, working, healing and gaining ground; a self-directed residency. I had received a partial scholarship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, but up front I had to shell out more than five grand for peak-season flights, program fees, food and accommodation. As an emerging writer, the invitation to participate in a residency program felt like the start of everything. I had a little money left but there’s no way I would have been able to take the opportunity without my help from my parents.
I knew then that getting a job was imperative. Luckily, I received an email from my former editor one afternoon, asking if I happened to need some extra cash because she had extra work. I jumped at the offer. I also found a café job around the corner: $17.50 cash-in-hand. Although excited at the prospect of the residency, when my parents drove me to the airport that day in July, all I could think about was how alone I would be.
The residency itself was good. I met some wonderful writers and attended classes in which the different styles and forms of poetry were discussed at length. The program allowed me to connect with other poets, make new friends and see some beautiful parts of the Massachusetts coast, but I was not in the best headspace to make the most of the writing experience. I returned to Australia a week early to help my mother, who had broken her leg, but mostly because I felt like crawling home.
While home, I watched a Ted Talk given by Andrew Solomon called Depression: the secret we share. In it he says, ‘You don’t think in depression you’ve put on a grey veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly. We believe we are seeing the truth, but the truth lies.’
Staying at my folks’ for a week gave me the safe space I needed to reflect, reach some equilibrium and start writing again. Perhaps I’m not all the way there yet, but the fog has lifted. It’s worth mentioning that at no point did I feel I’d made a mistake in leaving work to pursue poetry. Now, on the other side of things I’m certain I never will. It’s been six months since I decided to leave my job and even though I don’t have a finished manuscript and I’m still looking for a new job, I’m okay with it.
I’m still working towards seeing myself as a diligent person who is capable of achieving her goals. I think I will believe it when I see my manuscript. I hope that when I look back at this period of my life what I remember most is the fire that I lit under myself. Making art your full-time job is a scary thing to do. But I have the feeling that if it scares me that much, I should probably do it.
Winter is over and today is one of those summery afternoons that suggests the arrival of better things. I’m out of the house, working in a café on Smith Street and later tonight, my friend Eddie is coming over to go for a run. I think what’s more important than knowing this manuscript will become a book, is just knowing that I’m capable of writing one. I’m ready to make poetry that is about more than my bleeding heart. Things are good. There’s movement here, which is to say there’s space to breathe.
Amelia Theodorakis is a poet from Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Australian Poetry and Cordite. Her poem ‘Watching bats without you’ was highly commended in the WB Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia.