Feature Articles / Gary Lonesborough on resilience in writing

‘Choosing to be a writer means accepting that you are going to be faced with rejection, criticism and crippling self-doubt, but it also means you have the opportunity to chase your dreams.’

Choosing to be a writer means accepting that you are going to be faced with rejection, criticism and crippling self-doubt. Throw in the challenges of being an Aboriginal person in Australia and the road to achieving that dream can seem impossible at times. But my father always told me to keep my eyes on the prize, that you can choose to let setbacks either break you or make you stronger, and in 2019, at 24 years of age, I signed a book deal with Allen & Unwin for my first novel, The Boy from the Mish.

In a way, my whole life has been built on resilience. I was born into a low-income family and spent most of my childhood in social housing. I was the eldest of five kids. Meals were usually simple and cheap, but my parents never let their children go hungry and we always had a roof over our heads.

No matter our situation, we always had books around the house. As a kid, I loved the Captain Underpants books, books by Andy Griffiths, Paul Jennings and the Goosebumps series. When I was seven or eight, I began cutting A4 pieces of paper in half and stapling them together to make little books. On the covers, I would write: by Gary Lonesborough. That was the image I desired – to see my name on the covers of books.

I continued to enjoy creative writing through school and it was probably the only area I excelled in. When I was in year 11, the Aboriginal Liaison at my school gave me the entry form for the Patrick White Young Indigenous Writer’s Award. At the time, I was more interested in underage drinking and partying and playing footy, but I entered that competition and I won. I won a $500 gift card for Coles, which was like winning the jackpot at the time. That gift card was mostly used to help my parents pay for groceries.

Looking back, it was winning that competition that made me think I could be a real writer one day. It was still my dream to see my name on the covers of books, but winning that competition made me feel like I actually had some talent. It made me feel like that dream wasn’t impossible.

I was one of three Indigenous students to complete year 12 that year, and the night after I completed my third HSC exam, my mum passed away. Her death came suddenly, without warning. She was in her early 40s at the time and I felt my whole world, my whole future, come crumbling down upon me, crashing to the ground at my feet. As I was my mother’s eldest child, I had to keep a strong face for my younger siblings.

Not two months later, I lost one of my best mates to suicide. That hole of misery I was already trapped in, had only gotten deeper. It felt like years had passed since I won that writing competition and writing really wasn’t on my mind any more. But my dad, like he always did when we faced hard times, told me that I could let my pain break me or that I could use it to make myself stronger. I grieved, and then I chose to be stronger. I chose to believe in myself again. I chose to be resilient.

So I kept writing. I left home and moved to Sydney and I kept writing. I completed two years at film school, living on nothing but absolute poverty-level income from Centrelink and the joy of the new friendships I’d made, and I kept writing. I finally came to accept my sexuality, a struggle I’d be dealing with since I was 12, and I kept writing.

I kept writing through the years I spent freelancing as a filmmaker and working for a disability organisation. More recently, I worked for an Aboriginal organisation in Western Sydney. I assisted Aboriginal people with disabilities to access the programs and supports. I ran programs in juvenile justice centres for Aboriginal youth. I was lucky to have access to such a rich, wide variety of characters through work and found them to be inspiration for the characters I wanted to create. Working within the community helped me to add layers to the characters I was imagining and informed the issues and topics I wanted to explore in my writing.

I managed to write a 50,000-word manuscript for a dystopian novel before shelving it. I knew I had things to say but I wasn’t saying them in my writing yet. Then, I read a book called Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and I realised I hadn’t come across any books like that which featured an Aboriginal protagonist and their journey to accepting their sexuality.

I began writing a novel about a boy named Tomas who travels with his family to the coast for Christmas holidays. While on holidays, he would fall in love with an Aboriginal boy named Jackson.

The whole story was coming to me in a series of scenes and I could see them so clearly in my head. I wrote and wrote and wrote and finished a first draft in just over a month. I thought the first draft was the best thing I’d ever written or read, so I polished it off, sent it to some friends for feedback, edited for a few months then began sending it to publishers.

I know now that first drafts are never good, no matter how strongly you feel they are good. That version of the book was awful. I had put months of work into it, so as the rejections began rolling in, I began to doubt myself again. I felt ashamed to call myself a writer. I thought I was stupid for feeling so confident about my writing because I won some competition while I was in high school. Again, I could hear my dad’s voice telling me to keep my eyes on the prize, that I can let my setbacks break me or make me stronger.

I began to really critically look at my work and realised what the problem with the story was – Tomas. He was a very passive main character and because of him, the story was very one-dimensional. His love interest though – Jackson – was intriguing. He was mysterious and so unexplored that once I began thinking more about who he was, it was so clear to me that The Boy from the Mish was Jackson’s story, not Tomas’s.

As I began rewriting the story from Jackson’s perspective, completely from scratch, Tomas changed completely too. While working away, my final rejection came in from Allen & Unwin. While it was definitely a rejection, the submissions editor gave me some great feedback in their email. They came across as someone who thought I was a good writer and that the story had potential. I wrote back informing them I was rewriting the story from Jackson’s perspective and that I would love to send them the manuscript once I’d finished.

I spent six months completing that draft – reading it over and over, editing, cutting scenes, adding scenes, rewriting – until I was finally happy with the story. I sent it to the same submissions editor who had rejected me, then it was time to wait.

As the weeks and months began to pass by, I found myself feeling that self-doubt again. While on one hand I truly felt like this was the novel that I’d been waiting to write my entire life, on the other I was feeling like an idiot. Of course the story wasn’t good enough. I was too young to write a great novel. I didn’t go to university and study writing, and I didn’t take any writing courses or workshops, so of course my writing isn’t good enough yet. I began to think my work was probably amateur – no better than the work I’d written when I was at school. I tried to keep remembering what my dad had said to me but with every day that passed, I became more and more certain I would be rejected again.

By now, I knew how to be stronger than my self-doubt. I knew how to find strength in setbacks. And after about six months of waiting, I received the email that would change my life: a publisher from Allen & Unwin wanted to meet with me. While it crossed my mind that maybe they wanted to meet with me so they could reject me to my face, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of hope and possibility and validation.

A few weeks later, we met in a café in Sydney. I was more nervous than I had ever been. Even though it was a cold winter morning, my palms were sweaty as hell. I was so worried about what I might say, about how I might respond to a question, the choice of words I would use to make me sound like a writer. I was scared but so excited, and that meeting turned out to be amazingly delightful. We agreed that there was too much cigarette smoking and drinking in the draft I had sent, but at the end of the meeting, the publisher told me that they loved my book and wanted to publish it.

I don’t know how long we were in that café, but I felt all the good emotions a person can feel. After the meeting, I walked around the city for a while. I passed people on the street – people who didn’t know they were passing a person who had just achieved their dreams and was feeling so happy they could sit on the ground and cry. I found myself thinking about my mum. She had been gone for six years at that point and I so, so, so badly wished she were alive so that when I called my dad to tell him my book was being published by a real publisher, she could have celebrated through the phone with us.

Choosing to be a writer means accepting that you are going to be faced with rejection, criticism and crippling self-doubt, but it also means you have the opportunity to chase your dreams. You can really chase them. And when you finally get there, you have the opportunity to experience how it feels to hold that dream in your hands and know that through all the setbacks, the pain, the rejections, you were good enough and strong enough to keep writing. I’m there because I listened to my dad when he told me to keep my eyes on the prize, because I chose to be resilient and let my pain make me stronger.

Writing NSW has commissioned ten Australian authors to reflect on the complex relationship between writing and resilience. This series is supported by Create NSW

Commissioning editor: Kirsten Krauth

Gary Lonesborough is a Yuin man, who grew up on the Far South Coast of NSW as part of a large and proud Aboriginal family. Growing up a massive Kylie Minogue and North Queensland Cowboys fan, Gary was always writing as a child, and continued his creative journey when he moved to Sydney to study at film school. Gary has experience working in Aboriginal health, the disability sector (including experience working in the Youth Justice System), and the film industry. He was Bega Valley Shire Council Young Citizen of the Year, won the Patrick White Young Indigenous Writers’ Award, and has received a Copyright Agency First Nations Fellowship. The Boy from the Mish is Gary’s debut YA novel.

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