GABRIELLE TOZER: ‘I’ve learnt the creative benefit of letting my brain rest’

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Hello Foxes, Manda here. I met the lovely Gabrielle Tozer back in 2013, a few months before her debut novel The Intern was due to be published. Fast forward three years and Gabrielle has two internationally published books under her belt, the prestigious Gold Inky award and a number of cool projects on the horizon.

I’ve always admired Gabby’s drive and knew she’d have some real talk about juggling writing and everyday life. In this chat, she speaks honestly about her motivation to succeed, self-care, dealing with burnout and her exciting upcoming projects.

In keeping with our inaugural ‘New Cities’ theme, you moved from your hometown of Wagga Wagga to Canberra. Later, you packed your bags for Sydney. Have both your big moves been mostly about furthering your writing career?

Those transitional points in my life have one pretty major thing in common: I was hungry with ambition and passion. Looking back, I’m almost embarrassed by the level of drive and enthusiasm pumping through my body from age 17. I was like an Energiser Bunny. It can’t have been healthy! I’d even announced to my parents and teachers during primary school that I wanted to be a “news reporter” and “author” (meeting John Marsden cemented that idea too!), so many of my decisions – especially during the senior years – reflected that. (Not that I knew what a news reporter actually did while I was a kid. Mum always admired the newsreader Ann Sanders, so I think I did by default, too. Especially her colourful power jackets.)

Gabby with John Mardsen

        Gabby with John Marsden

I moved to Canberra at 18 to study journalism and creative writing, and then onto Sydney at 21 for my first fulltime national magazine position. I’m 31 now, and sometimes I wish I could go back in a time machine and tell Younger Me to slow down – that it’ll all work out if it’s supposed to – but, for whatever reason, I tackled my writing dream with an “all or nothing” mindset. Emphasis on the “all”. I was always thinking years ahead of myself, never stopping to take stock of the life-altering transitions I’d already done. Exhausting. I don’t recommend it! This aim-for-the-stars approach certainly led me to achieve some pretty wild stuff in my late teens and twenties, especially in the field of entertainment journalism, so I don’t regret it – and I don’t like to have regrets anyway – but I don’t think I ever realised how great life was for me at the time.

I’m much more mindful now. The passion and love for writing is still there, burning just as strong, but I now understand I can’t do it all at once and that’s alright. I do envy the energy and blind confidence from those early days though. Back then, I somehow didn’t seem to see obstacles that came with such big transitions, I just threw myself into the adventure of it all. I’m not that brave anymore. Nowadays, I hesitate at crossroads for a long time before making a choice or backing myself, while in those senior high school and university days I would charge ahead, too excited for The Next Big Thing to worry about falling flat on my face. Sometimes I have to remind myself to be more like that girl – just leap and hope that the net appears in time.

‘The passion and love for writing is still there, burning just as strong, but I now understand I can’t do it all at once and that’s alright.’

You wrote your first two novels while working fulltime. How did you even?

People are often shocked to hear I wrote The Intern and Faking It while working a fulltime job, but the hard truth is many Australian authors have to do the same – in some form, anyway. It’s a reality of the industry and it’s hard to juggle, I’m not going to gloss over it. I had a strict daily routine that I stuck to, rigidly, for years to pull it off – I’d wake up at 5.30am and write or edit, depending on which part of the process I was up to, for two hours before going to the office to do my day job. Then I’d work some weekends. Effective? You bet. I wrote two books doing this method. Exhausting? Oh my god, yes. I think I’m still tired from that period of my life!

In the spirit of transparency, I may have had the brain space to write books while working fulltime but I certainly didn’t have the brain space to write books, work fulltime AND look after my health, be a good wife, daughter and friend etc. I dropped so many balls in my life during that period. People still say to me, “I don’t know how you did it all!” like I’m a super-woman privy to some secret, but I wasn’t doing it all. Not even close. I wasn’t looking after my health, my husband – who has a busy job himself – got stuck with the bulk of the chores, I had next to no downtime to nurture relationships and friendships… I was a hamster on a wheel. What’s that saying? “You can have it all, but not at the same time.” So true.

The Intern

                                  The Intern

After my second book came out, I forced myself to step back and assess how I was approaching my writing – because my process wasn’t working for me anymore. The result? Life overhaul! These days I no longer work a 9-5 job at one organisation, but I work as a freelance journalist and sub-editor. I still probably work the equivalent of a fulltime job, but the upside is I can adjust my hours around book deadlines, festivals, school visits and writing retreats. It means I have more quality time with my favourite people, get to the gym and dance classes, have time for self-care… all while having plenty of time to work on new books! I no longer write creatively every day – instead I plan ahead and write in “blocks”, “seasons” or “blitzes”. Plus, I’ve learnt the creative benefit of letting my brain rest – the idea and words for my forthcoming children’s book Pip and Pop came to me during a week off! To paraphrase my husband, who loves a sports analogy, these days I’m treating life like a marathon rather than a sprint.

‘I no longer write creatively every day – instead I plan ahead and write in “blocks”, “seasons” or “blitzes”. Plus, I’ve learnt the creative benefit of letting my brain rest’

I remember at one point, you left a job at a magazine to take up copywriting work because you were hoping to free up some brain space and improve your ability to leave work at the office. Did that move end up working out as you expected?

I’ll put it this way: I changed jobs three times in three years trying to slot myself into careers that I hoped would complement writing books but, despite supportive bosses, nothing worked for me. The hours were too much. None of the fulltime magazine or copywriting gigs “fitted” into my life properly. Working as a copywriter in 2013-14 was a good experience, though, and it’s opened up a new avenue for me as a freelancer to work with small businesses and digital agencies.

When did you first consider making the jump from full time work to freelance?

I first considered going freelance fulltime in 2014 after my copywriting contract ran out (I’d freelanced for various publications on the side since 2003). I did six weeks as a freelancer and loved it… but then I was offered a fulltime job at a magazine and took it. Talk about chickening out! However, 10 months later, I finally made the call. I loved working with the magazine team so I was devastated to leave, but I knew I couldn’t keep it up – I was managing a department and always on deadline, so it was like trying to live two lives. I miss Friday night drinks and daily banter in an office, but freelance is the best arrangement for me, at least for now, as I can set boundaries, work flexible hours, enjoy some variety and block out days/weeks in my diary to immerse myself in my novels. I probably couldn’t have gone freelance any earlier in my career, even if I wanted to, as I needed to “do my time” in the industry… so I suppose it all works out, doesn’t it? Freelance isn’t for everyone, though. Some of my writing mates love it and we swap tips and tricks, while others loathed it and returned to fulltime work ASAP. Like anything, it’s a personal choice.

What’s one thing you wish someone had told you about going freelance?

How to set up processes and systems to save time on business admin – invoicing, expenses, receipts, tax, super etc. A year and a half later and I’m s-l-o-w-l-y getting the hang of it, but I know I still have a lot to learn. Updating spreadsheets and setting aside money for super and tax aren’t sexy or glamorous topics, but if you want to run a small business – that’s what freelancing is – then you have to get a handle on this stuff. When you’re a freelancer, you’re in charge of everything: you’re the boss, the CEO, the CFO, the IT desk, HR, social committee, receptionist and office manager etc. And I’m a much nicer boss to myself when I’m organised!

Faking It

                        Faking It

You work so hard – how do you handle the inevitable burnout?

In my twenties, the burnout would catch me by surprise. I’d end up crying in my doctor’s office, wondering why I was feeling so tired, down and ill. My gorgeous GP, who I’ve been seeing since I first moved to Sydney, would explain that what I was feeling was stress, anxiety and burnout. I had no self-awareness of what I was doing to myself – I was making myself sick from trying to do too much! (Where’s that time machine again?)

These days it’s a different story. I’m much more in tune with my body and know the value of a good night’s sleep, stacks of vegies and fruit, a long walk, asking for help, setting boundaries, saying no and self-care. Oh, and seeing a psychologist to help me with practical strategies on managing anxiety and stress. I still visit a psychologist for “tune-ups”. My mind is an essential tool to my creative process so I need to look after it. Hell, we all need to look after our minds!

‘My mind is an essential tool to my creative process so I need to look after it. Hell, we all need to look after our minds!’

What do you like to do to nurture your creativity?

Listen to music. Brainstorm. Wonder. Read books. Watch television and films. Walk. Dance. Have D&Ms. Reflect. Eavesdrop. Challenge myself. Ask questions. Meet new people. Listen to podcasts.

What have been the best and worst things about being an author so far?

The best thing is receiving emails and messages from readers around the world saying that my books have connected with them. Nothing tops that. The worst thing is the self-doubt that hits about 10,000 words into writing the first draft of an 80,000-word novel – it can be very easy to stand in your own way as a novelist! I don’t think my fear of the blank page will ever go away, but I’m learning how to manage it. And if that doesn’t work? Well, there’s always chocolate.

What’s left on your career bucket list?

Writing more books! I have another picture book idea and a middle grade idea rattling around in my head. They’re both dying to be written as soon as I can carve out some time. I also have a tiny speck of an idea for adults that I’m not even close to being ready to write yet… but one day. One day. I have another YA contemporary idea in my heart, too, but it’s a big one. A tough one. I think I need to let it simmer a little more before I attempt to unravel it on the page. Writing Remind Me How It Ends has been quite emotionally draining – I think I’m a method writer – so I want to “play” around in some happier ideas for younger readers for a while before diving back into something heavy. Too many ideas, not enough hours in the day!

Do you have a designated workspace at home? Do you like to work in a café or library?

I have an iMac set up in the corner of our living room. It’s my happy space. After years of drowning in mess, I try to keep my desk neat as we’re now in a one-bedroom apartment. I’m constantly de-cluttering to stay on top of the endless paperwork in our little shoebox. (Marie Kondo is my queen.) I also have a laptop so I occasionally work in cafes (“coffices”) or even pubs during the day, but I’m more likely to go to the State Library of NSW or the local university library near our place. I mean business on those days. Sometimes it’s tempting to stay at the home office and work in trackies and UGG boots, though. And by sometimes, I mean almost always.


              Where the magic happens

2017 is going to be a big year for you! How are you feeling about that?

I’m a nauseating mix of excited and terrified! My third YA novel Remind Me How This Ends hits shelves in April, my (long) short story The Feeling From Over Here is out in May in the #loveozya anthology Begin, End, Begin, and my first children’s book Pip and Pop is out in August so I’m juggling loads of different writing and editing deadlines this year. It’s thrilling, though, and I can’t wait to share these new stories, characters and worlds with readers. What a dream. Somebody pinch me!

You can find Gabrielle Tozer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Her books The Intern and Faking It are available where good books are sold.


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