More Than Just Words: What writing my debut novel taught me about mental health
February 2016. I’m sitting in Chatswood with my Robert, my publisher, walking him through a short story I have written. We’re making an effort to stay quiet; this is Robert’s normal place of work and we don’t want to draw attention to the fact that we’re doing non-work related activities. Robert stands up from his chair and goes over to the whiteboard, snatching up the whiteboard marker and flicking off the cap in a single motion.
‘Nick, I love these characters,’ he begins. ‘I love this world you present. But right now I feel like we’re barely scratching the surface.’
I’m new to this. Very new. I want to make a good impression, but I’m about to discover that I actually don’t really know how to write a novel.
‘What do you mean?’ I say, almost defensively.
‘I feel like you can go deeper here’, Robert elaborates. ‘There’s a world here. Yes, you’ve got the gambling theme. Yes, you’ve got the characters. But there is so much more to explore here’.
Writing a book, like any creative endeavour, is absolutely terrifying, especially the first time you are doing it. You’re proving things to yourself as an individual: figuring out your work style, how to get yourself into that creative headspace. Me? I was dealing with the most basic challenge of them all: actually doing it.
At the time, this short story Robert and I was discussing revolved around four twenty-something year old men on a night out at Sydney’s Star City Casino. The night starts off fun, but it is revealed that one of them was a gambling addict, and this leads to the group bickering and splintering, and eventually questioning whether the entire purpose of going out was worth it at all.
There was meant to be an intense anti-gambling message peppered throughout the story, in addition to themes around the mistakes of youth. It didn’t occur to me though, as I was sitting in this office, that I had barely experienced many of the topics that I was wanting to discuss.
Robert gave me some ideas, and scrawled them across the whiteboard. He talked of heightening the drama, adding in elements of crime and taking pot shots at big gambling companies. And, as I took photos of his ideas, I hoped that this moment would invigorate me.
Getting home, I came to the realisation that I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. Saying ‘gambling is bad’ is easy. Where is the nuance? Where is the connection? Why should the reader give a damn?
Suddenly, the self-doubt set in. My ego began to play tricks on me, and an unchecked ego is a dangerous thing. Am I cut out to be an author? The incredible people who I looked up to: the John Steinbecks, the Margaret Atwoods, the Neil Gaimans. Do I even have the capacity to think like they think? How do they fly so high while I’m here, barely able to put any words on the page.
I often say that it took me five years to write my debut novel. In fact, I only was writing properly for just over one year.
After graduating, I interned in sports publications in Sutherland, arts and culture publications in Wynyard, and took writing work wherever I could. This story? These four men? I would get round to writing it, eventually. Why wouldn’t I? I had a great name for it: Where The Chips May Fall. I needed to get contacts, build relationships, meet people. I needed to meet journalists, authors, publishers, sports people. And I needed to write.
But after close to two years of interning, with no job offers in sight, I got tired of it. And this story? Hadn’t written a word.
I got a full time job in a retail shop because I needed some money. I lasted six months. Then I got a role as a content coordinator in a medical technology company. I tried to convince myself, day after day, that I was on the right path in life. After all, it could be worse. I have great workmates and a positive environment. What’s not to like?
But this short story just sat there, with its title, sitting in the back of my head every night, reminding me that it wasn’t done. Reminding me of where I wanted to really spend my time.
In August 2018, six months into this job, I became extremely depressed. Everything had reached a point. Here I was, convinced that maybe I was just not cut out to be a creative. It was a horrible, hopeless place to be in. I would cover it up with humour and say ‘I plan to be a writer, so god help me!’ In truth, I believed it.
The following month, my work pulled me up and said they’d noticed my standards were beginning to slip. I was under pressure, which made me feel even worse. Suddenly, every aspect of my professional or creative life was filled with some feeling of failure. I needed something, some small victory. Something which made me feel like I’d actually achieved a result.
I opened up my work computer, late one afternoon. I went to my personal Google Docs, and there was this document I’d made, close to two and a half years ago, about this idea for a story I’d had. Four mates, reuniting for a night out. Start again.
I wrote five hundred words on that first day, and for a brief moment, finally felt like me again. It was a fleeting moment of success. The following day came, and I struggled with trying to make medical technology equipment sound exciting. I would struggle through the day, until I got to the end. And, for a brief twenty minutes that I would allow myself, I wrote again. The words struggled to come out, and I managed a poultry two hundred poorly written words. I cried on the way home that day.
The work pressures increased, and this became my daily routine. Some days I would struggle to write, others the words would flow out of me. But suddenly, the mists of the story began to clear. This wasn’t just a story about men and gambling. No longer did it feel one-dimensional. This was a story about growing up. This was a story about being honest with yourself.
It became obsessive. I began to ask myself questions. Why do men gravitate towards things like gambling? Why do men struggle to challenge each other when one of them is clearly struggling? Why do men struggle to be honest about their mental health? And I began to dive deeper.
By the end of September, I’d written twenty thousand words. I didn’t feel like I achieved anything though. The outside pressures of work had begun to take their toll.
Mirroring this time, the writing took on a darker tone. Suddenly, I put these feelings onto the page. The protagonist in this story was feeling just as lost as I was. He was struggling with the thoughts of his future, as I was. It became therapy, escaping into this other Sydney where these characters lived, breathed, and struggled. I didn’t just begin writing, but listening to podcasts and talks about mental health and suicide. I would be listening to music that would put me into a hopeless mood to rediscover those feelings and translate that to the page. In retrospect, it was probably extremely unhealthy, but I wasn’t going to stop it. The words were coming out of me. This needed to happen.
I finally confessed to my bosses (who had been concerned about me) in early January 2019 that I was suffering from depression, and I began seeing a psychologist. I was mortified the words would stop coming. But they didn’t. Suddenly, as I wrote forty thousand words, then fifty thousand, then sixty thousand, I released I was going to finish this story. I was going to achieve something. Something!
I submitted my first completed draft to Robert, my publisher at the start of April 2019, and finally, we began to edit it. By this stage however, I was really struggling with the sheer workload of this passion project on one side, and the job that paid the bills on the other.
The editing was one of the funnest parts of the process. The art of redoing, re-moulding, and re-organising became a constructive process. Every time I would receive notes and feedback, it felt liberating. Almost like the details were falling into place, and I was achieving the depth I wanted.
Outside of the book, I knew I was struggling with work. My bosses had talked to me about my performance, that they were increasingly worried about whether I saw myself at this job. It was when they asked where I saw myself in the next few years, if I was prepared and willing to plan ahead for my life, that I knew this job was not going to work out. Because the answer was that I wanted to be an author. Even if I put the effort in with this job, I would fall, fail and die trying. The truth is, this job wasn’t what I wanted. The struggles and the effort weren’t worth it, because this was not who I am. I thought I would be angry at myself, but I felt clarity.
In October 2019, after months of editing and design work, Robert invited me to the Bavarian Bier Cafe in Darling Harbour. There, he presented me with a book. The final proof of my book, When Men Cry, ready for printing. All of my work, all of these moments of absolute pain, recovery and liberation, in this one object. Looking back, it was one of the most significant and life affirming moments of my life. After a few stiff drinks to snap me out of the euphoria, I signed the book off for print. And as I was on the bus home, a feeling came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was proud of myself.
I resigned from my job in November that year with no plan in place. Weirdly, I felt okay. I made a promise to myself that the next job I get I would, for better or worse, be a working author.
My book was released in December that year, and I came close to selling out the two hundred copies printed in the first month. I had many regrets around the release of the book: my struggles with my job had meant I hadn’t had any opportunity to promote it. I’d wanted to link up with a mental health charity and donate some of my earnings, given the book talked heavily around issues of mental health. And yet, despite not achieving these goals, I was still proud of myself. Finally, I could say I was a writer.
I am not a healthcare professional. I can’t provide a technical, medically accurate description around mental health. But what I can say is what this book did for me, and for people I know who have read it.
When Men Cry never intended to be about mental health, but its story emerged as I dove into the world and the characters and ultimately, into my own issues and self. At its core, its a story about honesty: with yourself, with the people around you, and about the consequences of not choosing to acknowledge it.
When I wrote the ending of the book, a key learning that one of the characters picks up was that when you cry, you say ‘yes’ to life. Many men don’t cry often, or at least, don’t cry in the presence of other people. In the process of researching the book and the angle of mental health, I discovered an exercise by relationship coach Jordan Gray where he asked eleven women what it felt like when their male partners cry in front of them. The majority of women viewed it as a huge honour, an affirmation of trust in the relationship, and a final doorway to intimacy.
On reflection after completing the book, this response makes me angry. Men often feel pressured, emotional and upset, and if their moments of sharing vulnerability with their partners is only seen as something that doesn’t occur often (so much so that partners feel it’s a privilege to see them vulnerable), that’s a worry. That says that men aren’t being vulnerable as much as they should. These moments should not be an exception, being prepared to be vulnerable should be part of a normal, healthy relationship.
This was something I only learnt though through making the exact same mistakes myself. My mental health over the course of writing the book was a mess, and I didn’t divulge my struggles with my partner, friends or work colleagues until I was at my most desperate and lonely, a process that took months for me to arrive at.
It was then I became obsessed with the idea of what positive ‘listening’ looked like. I became fixated on a talk done by Sergeant Kevin Briggs, formerly of the California Highway Patrol, who patrolled the area around the Golden Gate Bridge. He was personally responsible for dissuading more than two hundred people from jumping off the bridge. He is now affectionately known as the ‘Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge’.
In this talk, Briggs went into considerable detail about his efforts to bring people back, and told a story about Kevin Berthia, one of the men Briggs helped save. Afterwards, as Briggs congratulated Berthia, he asked him what made him come back. Berthia responded: ‘You listened. You let me speak, and you just listened’. Berthia went on to become a incredible advocate for suicide prevention.
Things like this, in addition to how I was personally feeling after I wrote the book, contributed hugely to the final product. What was most challenging was the need to represent mental health correctly. While I am not a medical healthcare professional I go off my own experiences, the research I do from speaking with others, and from seeing how others represent mental health correctly. Many organisations, including Screen Australia, SANE Australia and the Mental Health Association of New South Wales offer guidelines and information around how to represent mental health correctly and respectfully on the page. It’s incredibly important that you get it right, because if you don’t, it can hurt people badly and give them an incorrect perception of their mental health, and by extension, affect their ability to get help.
Once the book was completed and published, it taught me one final key lesson about how to listen properly. When I released in the new edition in November 2020, I had the opportunity to partner with organisations like LIVIN, an organisation that aims to break the stigma around mental health. My aim when I began reaching out was to turn the book itself, (and the simple act of buying it) into a tool to do some good on the issue.
As part of this partnership with LIVIN, I was blessed to speak with Sam Webb, the co-founder of the charity. He spoke intensely of his own experiences in mental health, and how he had lost one of his closest friends, Dwayne Lally to suicide. At the end of this discussion, he confessed that he was not a healthcare professional, similar to me. But when you are talking to friends who are struggling, by creating a safe space and saying ‘ok mate, I’m always here for you whenever you want to chat’, that actually does so much. If you approach that with your friends and let them know that you are a safe space for them, that is something that helps them hugely around dealing with their own troubles. You don’t have to have experience, you just have to listen and be understanding.
In the months since my book was published, I came to a realisation that this was huge for me: writing the book was my safe space for many months. It showed me the need to open up to others. It was surprising that in the book, the characters learn throughout the story that they can be a safe space and be honest with one another, yet through it, they were also teaching me to do the same!
In December 2020, LIVIN reached out to me and told me that as a result of our partnership, someone had reached out to the charity to share their stories and their struggles with mental health. Not only that, but I had friends or strangers come up to me and tell me how much the book helped them, how it made them look on their own mental health and realise new things about themselves. They would talk about characters, which ones they were most like, and how the way the characters reacted would be the same way they would react. Above all, they would say that the book helped them know, even in a small way, what to do when they (or someone they loved) was going through the struggles of mental health.
The book itself became a safe space for readers. Not only that, it encouraged readers to themselves become a safe space for friends and family dealing with mental health. That is something that I couldn’t have even foreseen when I sat in that Chatswood office, four years ago, unsure of how I was going to tell this story.
To this day, I still feel like I have scratched the surface on the topic of mental health. I am not a healthcare professional, nor an expert, but I just wrote something from my own experiences. Through that, the book became more than just words. The book is now a mental health space that people have connected with. And I know now, at least with an author’s perspective, the power that books have as something that people still connect with: the book taught me, more than anything else.