Help me 2017, you’re my only hope

fireworks

I had just woken up in my hotel room in Sydney when I heard the news that Carrie Fisher had died, four days after she stopped breathing on a flight from London to Los Angeles. While 2016 saw the passing of many iconic figures, this one probably hit me the hardest.

Like most of the world, I first saw Carrie as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy.

But the hilariously honest way in which Carrie wrote and talked about her battles with addiction and bipolar disorder made me admire her all the more. So I got her likeness tattooed on me in February 2015, and I’ll treasure that for the rest of my life.

If you spend half as much time online as I do, you’ll know that 2016 was widely dubbed the “worst year ever”, in part due to the deaths of so many beloved famous people. I was fortunate enough to see Prince live at Perth Arena early in the year — which would turn out to be just eight weeks before he died. No photos or recording devices were allowed, so I can’t show you anything from that concert, but by the time I left the building, he was in my top three live acts of all time.

On a more personal note, someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, but as I write this, they seem to be doing well. So I’m quietly hopeful that 2017 will bring good news for us.

fireworks
Fireworks for the New Year. Photo by Freerange Stock Archives.
While it’s easy to focus on the negatives, last year had its highlights too. I returned to full-time study with the goal of qualifying as a library technician. And after a few false starts, I began writing what I hope will be my second novel during NaNoWriMo. (I’ve had some rejections for my first novel, but I will keep trying to get it published.)

I also flexed my writing muscle for other websites:

Other highlights included:

  • Seeing 1927, my favourite Australian band, four times — bringing my total tally to 16.

    A photo posted by Lee-Ann Khoh (@leeannkhoh) on

  • Attending the midnight premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I don’t watch many movies, so actually going to the cinema is usually an event anyway.
  • The 50th anniversary of Star Trek and the release of what I consider to be the best of the “Kelvin Timeline” reboots, Star Trek Beyond.
  • Spending the holidays with my Sydney family, which includes my brother, sister-in-law and nephew.

In 2017, I hope to keep writing and improving as a writer, as well as continuing my studies. While 2016 wasn’t entirely awful for me (despite the rather dramatic blog title), I know some people who had genuinely horrific years, and I hope for a better 365 days for them too.

Happy New Year.

On depression and creativity

Depressed person thinking. Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.

Earlier this month, Sydney-based professional dancer and YouTuber Damian Parker, aka HeyoDamo, posted a vlog he describes as “a mildly light hearted look at a very serious issue”. It’s basically a visual representation of his personal experience with depression and you can watch it below. (Damo is quite fond of profanities though, so don’t watch it if that’s likely to upset you, and consider using headphones if there are young kids around.)

The video depicts a kind of war with your mind, which tends to be what happens to me when I’m spiralling into a bad place, though different people experience depression differently. I was diagnosed with depression in 2014, but in retrospect it had first hit me back in high school, about 10 years earlier.

Depressed person thinking. Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.
Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.
Someone emailed me an article the other day called Why Writers Are Prone to Depression. I dare say it’s one of many, many online articles on the topic of depression in writers or artists, but here are the reasons this particular article outlined:

  • Being familiar with suffering may enable writers to write about their characters’ pain;
  • Writers are often working on their own and may not get much social interaction;
  • Writers face lots of rejection, which can take its toll;
  • Writers may write at odd hours, adversely affecting sleep schedules.

I’ve always been a bit of a loner and night owl, so I guess that fits the profile… But I’m an introvert with social anxiety and many writers are not.

I was writing long before I ever felt depressed, but I do think my best work has been when I’ve been able to tap into those dark thoughts and feelings and transform them into a new story. But it’s hard to be creative when you’re in a depressed state. I’m at my most productive when my head is above water.

These days, I’m doing okay. I use a combination of prescribed medication and self-care activities like keeping a daily journal. I was also in therapy for a while. I have good and bad days, but I’m getting through them.

If you’re reading this blog post and you’re struggling, I won’t patronise you by saying everything will be fine. But it can get better. If you find something that works for you (which may or may not be what works for someone else), then bit by bit, life gets a little more livable.

What if I never succeed?

Sulky and angry young kid on the couch. Photo by Jack Moreh / Freerange Stock.

John Green recently posted a video on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel he shares with his brother Hank.

In it he talks candidly about the pressure of trying to write a novel after the runaway success of The Fault In Our Stars. He mentions the novels he’s started and given up on since then, and admits he may never publish another book.

Watch John’s vlog here:

It got me thinking about things that, truth be told, are never far from my mind. I’ve written one complete novel to date. I want to get it published, but what if it never happens? I tell myself it doesn’t matter; that I can just write another manuscript, and another, and as long as I persevere, one will eventually stick. But what if the first manuscript was a fluke? What if I never actually finish another one? Or what if I’m just not good enough? I love writing — it gives me a sense of purpose that nothing else has ever matched — but could I really be content to do it for the rest of my life with nothing to show for it?

Sulky and angry young kid on the couch. Photo by Jack Moreh / Freerange Stock.
Photo by Jack Moreh / Freerange Stock.
Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that. I’m only in my 20s. But at the end of the day, I think most of us — regardless of what we do — doubt ourselves from time to time. Or maybe all the time. It doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want to do. I’m full of angst, but I’m still a writer. Because a writer is someone who writes, not necessarily someone who has a great deal of self-belief or confidence in their ability.

Going back to John Green’s vlog, I liked how he said he’s become okay with not knowing whether he’ll publish another book or whether anyone will like it if he does. Perhaps I could learn to be genuinely okay with the possibility of failure too.

But not until I’ve done everything within my power to succeed.

Libraries and why they matter

Why libraries? Photo by Tom Grandy / Freerange Stock.
Why libraries? Photo by Tom Grandy / Freerange Stock.
One of the best things my parents ever did for me was to read to me. Despite not being voracious readers themselves, they still recognised how important it was for me.

Another wonderful gift they gave me was to take me to the library every three weeks. It cemented my love of books and stories, and that’s an integral part of who I am, even if I never make it as a successful novelist. Books have been my friends and a source of comfort during hard times. And a recent study suggests that people who read books live about two years longer than non-readers, so I think bookworms are onto a winner.

After a somewhat meandering career, I returned to the classroom this year as a Library Studies student. The other day, someone asked me, “Why libraries?”

I thought about this for a moment. I mean, I’d thought about it before applying for and enrolling in the course, but I’d never verbalised it before.

“A lot of people think libraries are just buildings with books in them, but they’re much more than that,” I said. “Libraries play an important role in the community. They provide resources and information to people who might not otherwise have access to them. I think I can use some of the skills I already have, and learn some new ones, to help people.”

I don’t know whether the person liked my response or thought I was a bit wanky, but it is what I believe so I’ll stand by it. Moreover, the library was my safe space when I was a teenager, and I know it is for many other people too.

Libraries are evolving, too, and that’s great. I love reading about libraries doing interesting things. Like the library in the US that’s doing readers’ advisory based on customers’ tattoos (which combines two of my favourite things — books and tatts). Or the library in Finland that’s installed a soundproofed karaoke booth (another two of my favourite things — libraries and singing).

Do you visit your library?

On coffee and writing

On coffee and writing

On coffee and writing
On coffee and writing. Photo by Ed Gregory/Stokpic.
I’ve often seen a writer defined (on the interwebz) as someone who turns caffeine into words.

For a long time, I couldn’t relate to this. I drank coffee as often as I drank alcohol, which was virtually never. I hated the bitter taste. I also rarely drank energy drinks because doing so gave me what felt like heart palpitations.

But I started studying full-time again this year, and these days, I find myself having a cup of coffee before my first class. I don’t actually know why I started doing this. Peer influence, maybe? At first, I loaded my coffees with sugar, but now — as I near the end of my first semester — I drink it without, bitterness and all.

I’ve met writers who swear by caffeine. For me, I don’t think I’m writing any more or less with it. And I don’t know if my writing has improved at all. But I feel like I’m one step closer to becoming the writerly clichรฉ I always fantasised about being. Although I don’t plan on becoming an alcoholic any time soon. ๐Ÿ˜›

Are you more productive with a coffee fix?

Wearing my heart on my sleeve

Stack of books, rose, ink pot and quill tattoo by Dayne

I say words to this effect a lot, but I’ve been pretty poor with my blogging commitments lately. Although I have been ghostwriting blog posts for clients, so it hasn’t been a complete productivity fail.

In terms of my actual writing, I’ve mainly been trying to get my novel ready for submission. I made some significant structural changes in my most recent redraft, but I think it’s now a lot stronger than it was before.

Last week, I also added a new tattoo to my collection — this one is for my love of reading and writing.

It’s actually a cover-up of an older tattoo; I can still see the original but I don’t care because I love this one. Which is good, seeing as it’s the most visible of my six tattoos (The others are almost always hidden under clothing or jewellery).

I may need to wear long sleeves to cover it when I’m looking for work. I’m studying to be a library technician, and I personally think having a stack of books permanently inked onto your wrist is a mark of dedication to the job, but I know not everyone would agree with me. ๐Ÿ˜›

Talking about self-harm and self-injury #SIAD

Snapchat: leeannkhoh

A little over a year ago — in the lead-up to Self-Injury Awareness Day (March 1) — I wrote a blog post called Breaking the silence on self-injury.

My orange ribbon tattooIn February this year, I was asked by some of my classmates about the meaning of the orange awareness ribbon tattooed on my wrist. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me what it meant in the 14 months I’ve had it.

It was an opportunity to actually break the silence, instead of just writing about it.

I only had a few seconds to decide whether or not to tell the truth. When I first got the tattoo, one of the appeals of it was the fact that the orange ribbon represents several different causes, and I could decide later if I was comfortable with telling people what it meant. I could’ve said my tattoo was for Harmony Day — after all, I love its message of cultural diversity and inclusion. It’s a very worthy cause. But it’s not the cause I got inked on my wrist.

So, I told the truth: That my tattoo was for self-harm and self-injury awareness.

It’s a topic that tends to make people uncomfortable, and I get terribly anxious over uncomfortable situations. But I’m also a writer. I’m writing a novel about someone who engages in deliberate self-injury as a coping mechanism. And that comes with responsibilities that I don’t take lightly.

Here, I had an opportunity to speak up. An opportunity that had been fortuitously dangled in front of me. And not taking that opportunity — after I’d promised to myself and the world that I’d break the silence on self-injury — might have been my way of reinforcing its stigma.

The stigma of self-injury ultimately discourages people to seek help, because they feel like they’re all alone, doing something shameful that no one can ever know about. It’ll be a long time before I see my novel in print, and in the meantime, the least I can do is play my part in ensuring self-harm becomes an okay thing to talk about it.

For what it’s worth, when I told my classmates why I got my tattoo, they demonstrated empathy and didn’t freak out at all. Obviously, not everyone in the world will react in a positive way, but I shouldn’t necessarily assume that all people will react badly.

Anyway, that’s all I really wanted to say today… I didn’t manage to blog for all of February (even though I had an extra day to do it) but hopefully I’ll get some posts done in March. I’m now a full-time student again after five years away from the classroom, which has taken some getting used to. But I’m enjoying the course and the new routine. And I think my time management has improved (albeit through sheer necessity, since I’m continuing to do work for clients and revise my manuscript).

P.S. LifeSIGNS is my favourite resource on self-injury. Whether you self-injure, are trying to help someone who does, or just want to know more about it, there’s some really good information on their website.

Goodbye 2015, hello 2016!

It's 2016! Happy New Year!

If you’re reading this, you’ve made it into 2016. Here’s to happiness and exciting new beginnings. ๐Ÿ™‚

My 2015 in review

Despite falling into a bit of a holiday depression towards the end of the year, 2015 was actually pretty good to me — particularly from a writing perspective. I finished the first draft of my first novel in July, and went on to do another two redrafts before the end of the year.

I spent six months of the year doing the Write Your Novel program with the Australian Writers’ Centre, and my fellow students have now become my writing group. They encourage me, support me, and give me incredibly useful advice and feedback on my work. I hope I do the same for them, and that we’ll continue to help each other for many years to come.

I also started singing in front of people! First it was just my guitar teacher, but one evening, I signed up for live band karaoke at a local pub and haven’t looked back. I think I started because it dawned on me that I’ll probably have to talk to groups of people if I get my book published, and before that happens, I should at least be able to stand in front of them without passing out. But I also found singing a lot of fun. Although I still don’t know if I can talk to a group without music.

Other highlights include:

My goal for 2016

My biggest goal for 2016 is actually a goal I’ve had since I started reading chapter books at the age of six: to be a novelist. So I plan to polish my manuscript and start pitching my novel to agents this year. And then to publishers directly if I don’t manage to get an agent.

Hopefully in a year from now, my soul won’t be completely destroyed by rejection. ๐Ÿ™‚

I also want to start writing my next novel. I did begin a new story during NaNoWriMo, but other things got in the way of me finishing it. And I’m now pretty sure that particular story is actually a short story, rather than a novel. I’ve got some idea of what I want the next novel to look like, but I need to put pen to paper.

So that’s my plan for this year. It’ll take perseverance and self-belief, but the same could be said of all goals worth achieving.

How did 2015 treat you? What are your goals for 2016?

Fighting depression during the holiday season

The festive season can be depressing. Photo by Adamophoto/Freerange Stock.

The festive season can be depressing. Photo by Adamophoto/Freerange Stock.
The festive season can be depressing. Photo by Adamophoto/Freerange Stock.
It’s called the festive season, and you go around saying things like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” to each other. But the truth is, the holidays can be downright depressing, even if you’re not clinically depressed. And to make matters worse, you’re expected to plaster a smile on your face for days at a time and act cheerful. No one wants to spend Christmas and New Year’s with Debbie Downer.

I’ve tried to be open about my mental health struggles because I believe I can help people by putting myself out there.

Over the years, I’ve figured out that there are a few things I can do to make the holidays a little more bearable when I’m feeling down. They don’t come with any guarantees, unfortunately, but I’d like to share them with you in the hopes that they might work for you.

  • Put some music on. Not Christmas music, unless you have a genuine passion for it. But something that makes you smile. 80s pop and glam metal is my usual choice because it’s so gloriously over-the-top. Use headphones if the rest of your house won’t apppreciate it.
  • Take some time out for yourself. This can be difficult, especially if you have to spend time with multiple sets of families over Christmas. But sometimes a few minutes alone in the bathroom can help you face the world again.
  • Keep a journal. I actually think everyone could benefit from doing this all year round, but if you’re likely to feel depressed these holidays, grab a notebook and record everything you’re thinking and feeling. It doesn’t have to make sense; it’s just for you, and you might find that writing it all down helps you come to terms with it.
  • Do something creative or artistic. This year, I wrote a therapeutic three-chord song on my guitar called My Suicide Note Will Ruin You Like You Ruined Me; and in the tradition of one of my favourite bands, The Gaslight Anthem, the title does not appear in the song at all. However, if crocheting or adult colouring books are more your thing, try to indulge in that over the holidays.

Do you have any tips for getting through the festive season?

Pursuing a writing career when you have social anxiety

Anxiety/Fear Puzzle. Photo by Stuart Miles/Freerange Stock.

Anxiety/Fear Puzzle. Photo by Stuart Miles/Freerange Stock.
Anxiety/Fear Puzzle. Photo by Stuart Miles/Freerange Stock.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to be an author since I was about five or six years old. One of the reasons is because I was so shy, and writing was the only way I knew how to communicate and express myself. However, pursuing a career as a writer involves a lot more than just putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Whether you’re traditionally or independently published, the marketing of your book is your responsibility. And that means putting yourself out there, which isn’t easy for a lot of people, especially if they’re like me.

A few weeks ago, Ava Jae — author of upcoming science fiction YA novel Beyond the Red and the vlogger behind bookishpixie — posted this video, On Authoring and Social Anxiety. It definitely struck a chord with me.

I always knew I was more than “just shy”, but it wasn’t until I was in counselling for depression last year that I started to see how crippling my avoidance of social situations had been. There are so many friendships and opportunities I miss out on simply because people forget I’m there, or think I’m not interested, or don’t understand why introverts can’t just get over it and be more like extroverts. I even had a teacher tell me my parents were obviously spoiling me at home because I thought I was too good to interact with the other kids; evidently not realising or caring that I didn’t know how to interact with them.

And frankly, I don’t think it’ll ever be easy for me. I’m never going to adore public speaking. I’m never going to be the world’s greatest conversationalist. I’m never going to think an unsolicited phone call is a superior way of contacting someone than an email or a text message. But I’m better than I was. And any small step towards making my dream a reality is a step I’m willing to take.

The truth is, I love people and one of the reasons I’m striving to be published (instead of just writing in my journals) is because I want to connect with people. And I think I have something worth saying. But readers will ultimately be the judge of that. ๐Ÿ™‚