"If I have to sit here and read, I'm not being productive"

It's a familiar soundbite I've heard, as I'm sure you have over the years, as the Internet has gradually colonised our 'modern lives' that "people have short attention spans and they don't read online." If this is the case however, I'm doomed, as is every other copywriter and writer who uses the web as their primary publishing platform. For if people aren't actually reading what I'm devoting my deep time to, can I justify continuing? Is copywriting and writing for the web already redundant? This is a question I've been turning over recently and while intuitively I'm pretty sure that this argument groups humans with lizards and amebae while perpetuating the poor attention spans and 'always on' culture that it criticises, I'm ready to dig down and do some unpicking.

I'm curious as to where this blanket assumption came from and what the implications might be for writing in a way that caters to this 'always on world' of 'instant gratification' and 'low attention spans.' My hunch is that by living by The Guardian's datum, that "website owners need to find ways to grab the attention of visitors and keep it for just long enough to get their message across...because if you don't, the cursor will be heading to the back button in the blink of an eye," we're heading for a place that none of us are going to like all that much.

 

In 1997, Jakob Nielsen, former VP of research at Apple computers (the one in the in the purple shirt) etched in stone four main reasons why 79% of people scan instead of read on the web. They go something like this;

  • Reading from computer screens tire our eyes and is 24% slower than reading a hardcopy book or paper. His suggestion is for people to purchase high-resolution-high-scan-rate monitors that lab tests have shown have the same readability as paper (a quick Google search for such monitors led me to 'heart rate monitors at Harvey Norman!?)
  • The web is a user driven medium where users feel they have to move on and click things. Nielsen quotes a member of a user testing group that bemoaned, "if I have to sit here and read the article then I'm not productive." For Nielsen, people want to feel like they are 'active' when they're online. 
  • Each page has to compete with hundreds of millions of other pages for the users' attention. Nielsen argues that people don't know whether 'this' page is the one they want and are therefore not "willing to commit to the investment of reading the page in the hope that it will be good...they want the most tasty segments only."
  • Modern life is hectic and people simply don't have time to work hard for their information. Nielsen quotes one test user who said, "if this (long block of text) happened to me at work, where I get 70 emails and 50 voicemails a day, then that would be the end of that...if it doesn't come right out at me, I'm going to give up on it."

I want to quickly pull out some of, what are for me, the most disheartening 'takeaways" in Nielsen's research:

1. If I have to sit here and read the article then I'm not productive.

 Reading online must therefore be an unproductive activity and we should all stop reading now because it's a dead end. Reading in itself is not productive and so the writing part must also be foolish.

2.  People are not willing to commit to the investment of reading the page in the hope that it will be good...they want the most tasty segments only

People are impatient and only want 'positive' online reading experiences. Nielsen is therefore implying that one can know that something is 'positive' or indeed 'negative' by not reading it but perhaps by using a sixth sense to discern such particulars (or by just reading something their friends or a 'thought leader' has recommended). In short, 'tasty',  however prickly and problematic that term is, is better.

3.Modern life is hectic and people simply don't have time to work hard for their information

People don't want to invest themselves in learning new information because they're too busy checking their Gmail and Tinder accounts. Hasn't life always been modern to those that were living in that time?  Have time, or make time-I think he's missed that distinction.

3. If it doesn't come right out at me, I'm going to give up on it

Yes. Because the best things in life are the easiest to amass. Such things require you to input the minimum amount of physical, emotional and or intellectual labour in making, obtaining and creating them. Things like life long friendships, university degrees and novel writing.

Sigh.

Hopefully it's clear that I think there are some serious flaws in what Mr Nielsen's research has concluded about meaning making, attention spans and reading online.

While I'm disheartened by perspectives like Nielsen's that seem to bleed into and become the 'popular consciousness,' I am equally as heartened by folk like Maria Popova of Brain Pickings who I caught over the weekend sharing this little anecdote:

"Time. Information and knowledge take time to digest. There seems now days to be no place for depth. Everything has to be entertaining. We don't want our brains to be stretched. We seem to be bored with thinking; we want to instantly know. This I think explains why there is an epidemic of listicles. Why think about it when you can skim. Adrienne Rich in 1977 gave a commencement address and in it she said that an education is not something you get but something that you claim. Which I think is true of knowledge itself, we are increasingly intolerant of long articles and have been infected with this pathological impatience that makes us want the knowledge but to not do the work of claiming it. But the irony is that we can only glean knowledge by contemplation and the only road to that is time. Meaning is what we  seek to give to our lives and there is no shortcut to that."

If Popova, in all her eloquent, depthful brilliance could one day become as influential as ol'mate Nielsen in the 'popular consciousness' well, I'd say that's certainly a place I'd very much like to teleport to and curl up in.

The end :)

 

 

7 surprising things I learnt completing an honours thesis

Recently I completed a thing I had told myself for too long it's boring, that I couldn't do.

Now it's done. Finished.

Sylvia Plath's wrote her timeless novel, The Bell Jar in 1963. Sadly, just months later she committed suicide in her London home. In reading The Bell Jar, I came to appreciate that a scientific vocabulary is radically insufficient for describing the lived experience of madness. 

Sylvia Plath's wrote her timeless novel, The Bell Jar in 1963. Sadly, just months later she committed suicide in her London home. In reading The Bell Jar, I came to appreciate that a scientific vocabulary is radically insufficient for describing the lived experience of madness. 

It's like when you book a holiday. You imagine your future self sipping coffee from little china cups on the streets of Paris, wandering The Lourve, kissing your beloved on the cobblestone streets, thrust against some ancient stone wall. You imagine and hold out for all those juicy experiences and then when it finally does come the time for you to board that plane, it's not like you had imagined. It's, well...it's just like living life, only your somewhere else, eating different food, more present to the world's sensations, a bit more excited and inspired. But still you. Same hair, same nose, same fear of flying.

That's what finishing honours was like. I've got the same hair (though it's a bit longer because I was too busy to get a haircut), I sleep in the same bed and the view from my desk hasn't changed. But, like any good overseas (or interstate) jaunt where you are pried out of the familiar and urged to call on something within you to cope with an extended lay over, the diarrhoea and vomiting inflicted on your from eating some nasty shit at a wedding, or waiting in the desert for ten hours for help in the form of a non English speaking local to scoot past in his farm truck, something subtle in you does shift. You're never quite the same you. 

During these past nine months of reading and writing and writing and reading and not sleeping in, I grew up and into a being that is a tiny bit more confident in her abilities. 

1. I can do it.

It's cliched, but being on the very edge of my courage every day, forcing myself to write when I felt like sleeping, read when I felt like walking and defend my position when I felt like cowering, showed me that I can do and create tangible things in the worth of immense (personal) value. When I'm disciplined and committed to seeing something through from end to end I can make great things happen. I can produce. I can do it. 

2. Universities can be brilliant, inspiring places and can grow me in ways I never could have conceived, but it's important to be critical about what people say, to form my own ideas about what I think and feel as a result of independent research and inquiry. 

University is esteemed as a place where one can develop their OWN opinions, ideas and thoughts about the world. Not simply digest the popular political direction of the day. While the political stance taken by the university was overwhelmingly left wing, that doesn't mean that it was or is right, absolute or that it should be taken as gospel. A whole nine months to independently research and formulate my own ideas about what I thought and felt about my research topic gave me the resources and the confidence to disagree, to question authority and to not be afraid to assert what may be an unpopular viewpoint.  Diversity of opinion is a rich thing and not something that should be eradicated.

3. Deep Work is where it's at.

I handed my final thesis (21,000 words) in one month early, and that included four rounds of revisions with my supervisor. I didn't work weekends, or after 5pm and I worked two full days of the week in a part time job for the duration of my second semester. Seriously. If I had not had the deepus workus strategies of Sir Cal Newport, I couldn't have done that. Focusing on one thing at a time for a prolonged period of time, checking out from social media and scheduling in plenty of down time with friends of an evening and over the weekends enabled me to write quality academic prose FAST. (Oh, and I had the best housemate ever. She refrained from playing her Metallica CD at a thousand decibels all day everyday and for this I am grateful.)

4. Deep Work is fulfilling, nay Deep Work is the most fulfilling thing EVER.

This Honours year taught me that I need a career where my gig is centred around plenty, nay, tonnes and tonnes of deep time. And I guess I'm lucky that I have created that here, oh and that I converted my boss in my part time role to Cal's philosophy...now we both keep Deep Work tallies.

5. Creating this project within an institution was helpful.

I fought and fought against doing such a thing within an institution for the first three or so months of my course. I repeatedly told myself that I should have been able to write alone, off my own back, no supervisor, no coursework requirements. But... the deadlines, the personal one on one critical feedback sessions with my supervisor and all of the other student resources including the library database (and discounts) that were free for me to milk contributed to my success; they didn't detract from it. The structure of the course enabled me to refine and refine my ideas and to improve exponentially within a short space of time. Every day was uncomfortable, but every day was structured and I knew what had to be done by when. I had comrades who I could confide in about the stress of the assessment tasks, compare brutal feedback with and enjoy a good ol' belly laugh at the end of semester poster session; this sense of community in itself was pivotal. There is also A LOT to be said for being held accountable to someone else when attempting something bigger than you've ever known. The fear of my supervisors wrath should I fall short of what was asked of me, was enough to propel me to put in my best effort. 

6. Rigour is my friend

In the final seminar of the semester I had a curly question hurled at me from two of the academic faculty staff. They were questioning my use of a term. To them the term 'madness' was derogotary; 'had I not thought about the connotations of such a term?' Fortunately all I had done for nine months was thing about connotations, denotations and the way in which language is used and to what effect. In short, I had an answer for them because I'd been methodical in my research. Academic research is rigorous, but a lot of what we read online and in the news isn't. It's based on opinion, which is ok if the article or piece of writing is addressing someone's preferences for washing powder but no good if we want to know which washing powders are safe to use if your child has Eczema. Rigour is good and I want to strive to be more methodical and thorough in all I do.

7. My personal (private) motivations for wanting to pursue something in life aren't separate from my professional motivations. 

Let's go back to that final seminar of the semester.

The request of myself and my classmates in that final session was to present for five minutes to a room of students and university staff about our chosen research topic. All semester, members of the academic faculty had visited our humble honours classroom of twenty five to speak about their research. The intention was to both give us a clear sense of the research direction of the faculty should we be in need of an expert in a particular area; and to inspire us-to glimpse what we too could be pursuing in a few years time if we did a great job of our Honours thesis. Not one of these members of faculty spoke about WHY they were interested in their topic. Not one. And the topics were obscure. Like what zombies have in common with modern day labour exploitation; empathy and domestic violence in women's fiction and 18th Century Erotica-when did the first condom appear? The absence of any such airings, and revelations of one's personal motivations for pursuing what they pursuded seemed to me to be linked to the fear of not appearing 'rational' or objective, or of somehow losing credibility in the eyes of one's peers if one was to admit, "well, I visited China and was devastated by what I saw...the standard of living in the poorer quarters, the factories, this young girl, just eight years old that I met who was working for Foxconn... I felt I had no choice by to dedicate my life to this."

So, in my final presentation I told the room a story about why I had chosen to compare  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar. And I think they hated it a bit, or hated me, or thought that I was not being rigorous or whatever. In doing that, in not giving an objective, emotionally removed overview of my topic, I made the decision there and then that my work will always be underpinned, informed and motivated by my personal experience and values and that revealing that is OK, even in a university setting, nay especially in a university setting because it is what aids connection. I know it does.

So, now that Honours is done I feel a small hole in me. But I'm working on not being too hasty to close it up because perhaps it will reveal what's next needing my deep work capabilities.

 

xx

Jess

 

P.S If you're interested to read more about what my actual project said, Overland recently published a small written piece about my thesis. It's very readable :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going to the edge of my courage: recovery from a really bad essay

Eight months ago, I made, what felt like an enormous, cosmically weighted choice to go back to uni after more than three years. I imbued this decision with a ridiculous amount of existential significance and fought off tonnes of stressful thoughts throughout my first semester. I told myself I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t have the smarts to make it work, that I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat, that I’d quickly grow tired and stressed and be a colossal downer around my friends and family, that I was "different" to my classmates.

But, try as my mind did to convince me that it was all the logistical, external things that needed to change for me to feel at ease, the truth was that I was terrified of feeling the inevitable pain that comes from working towards something of value. It hurts. It had hurt before, and I knew it would hurt again. And I didn’t want it to.

My first semester was hard. It hurt a lot. Mainly because I slogged it out for an undefined number of hours every weekend and developed subtle tricks to resist feeling feelings that necessarily appear when you try to accomplishing meaningful things.

Throughout the winter and spring of 2016 I felt unclean most of the time. Like some part of myself that was difficult to get to was dirty.

I remained distracted while I wrote and kept multiple tabs open in the event of something bigger and more important needing special attention.

These included but weren’t limited to:

·      Facebook

·      Three of four email accounts

·      Music that promised tranquillity with a beat

·      You Tube videos of a media phase I was enslaved by

 

And the quality of my work suffered.

My lecture’s comments from my final essay of the semester went something like this:

“This seemed to me to be an oddly uneven essay. Some of it was very good; some of it really wasn’t. I’ll start with the writing—in some ways the simplest aspect to deal with. At times, you string together some very effective sentences: vigorous, perceptive, sophisticated critical prose. Then there are sentences that are marred by some persistent problems. Maybe if you had turned this essay inside out, so to speak things might have been different.”

 

Maybe if I had turned myself inside out things would have been different. Probably!?

The cliché platitude says that time heals all wounds, and in my case my wounded ego recovered from my terrible essay.

After the semester ended I flew to Perth to be with my family and read and fell into an obsessive affair with Deep Work.

Deep Work is a call to arms to become great at your chosen craft by resisting distraction and engaging in what Cal Newport terms, Deep Work.

Cal’s main argument is that with the advent of distracting digital technologies our ability to devote ourselves to cognitively demanding things for long periods of time (like writing a novel, working out a difficult problem, learning a musical instrument or even reading something challenging) has been significantly impaired, and if we don’t do something fast, it could be lost.

Social networking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and even our email accounts are engineered to be addictive. They deliver targeted information on an unpredictable and intermittent schedule, so we never know what’s coming next, but we can be guaranteed that it will be algorithmically defined just for us.

It’s no surprise to learn that these technologies and the undisciplined behaviour we have around them, checking them each time we’re standing in line or waiting for the train, rewires our brains to constantly need novel stimuli.

In short, these technologies render our brain unable to go deep, even if we wanted to.

Cal’s message made it evident to me that there were simple, practical steps I could take to write better essays. It wasn’t that I was an awful writer, and I didn’t lack dedication, I was just working dumb, addicted to digital technologies and devoid of clear methodical steps for a way out.

I read Deep Work twice (maybe three times) and then set about implementing some rules and rituals into my study sessions that now involve things like:

 

·      No Internet

·      No phone

·      No email checks

·      A hearty breakfast

·      Scheduling in my deep work blocks at the end of each week for the week following (this  ensures I don’t have to make on the spot decisions whether to do them or not)

·      Marking my sessions with a big bold X, on a massive wall planner, tallying up my hours at the end of the week (this introduces a healthy dose of competition with myself)

·      Shutting myself in a room that is quiet and conducive to going deep

·      No email after the day is done

·      No work on weekends

·      I quit social media for good

Although Cal’s work has helped me greatly to establish a writing routine and to power through at an unprecedented speed, as my supervisor Chris pointed out it’s a tad utopian.

For starters, not everyone has a deep work project, like writing a novel or a dissertation. That said, there’s no shortage of deep projects out there, so maybe this is objection is a distraction from a more insidious fear about how much it might hurt.

Secondly, people have families. My personal circumstances, in working for myself and not having a family dependent on me, means that I can go deep whenever and wherever I like; the only person’s needs I need consider are my own. That said, expressing your needs is hard, but not impossible and the people who love us most, do genuinely want to see us succeed, so perhaps the trick here is to be brave and ask for the things.

Thirdly, Cal’s philosophy doesn’t consider a person’s current state of health and wellbeing.

I am only able to go deep now because my body has had twelve months or more of big rest. No exercise (or very little), lots of good food and plenty of sleep.

This rest followed many years of endurance exercise and Paleo type restrictive, trendy diets-my body wouldn’t have had the energy required to go deep a year ago even if I had pushed it.

In short, small amounts of depth might be ok, but the balance may be precarious and difficult to get right if you’re health is compromised.

Lastly, if you own a media company or live in a remote part of the world and are running a business, social media may be the sole means you have for marketing your products or services (this argument I’m not entirely convinced of… I have addressed the objection that you need to be on social media if you run a business in a recent blog post).

Objections to Cal’s philosophy aside, by opting out of using Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and NOT tuning up the tranquillity with a beat while I’m attempting to work on things of meaning and immense personal value, I have noticed a rather interesting side effect.

I no longer have the urge to buy anything I don’t need.

I don’t know whether this is the result of not being constantly bombarded with advertising targeted to my latest Google search, or viewing highly curated lifestyles on Instagram. But since deep working, I have felt a quietening of the mental fuzz that used to pervade my brain; it has been replaced by a kind of celestial fulfilment.

And because of that, I’m sticking with working deep and facing the truth that if I want to create things of original creative value I need to go to what my friend Murray terms, "the edge of my courage." 

And the edge of my courage is probably going to hurt.

 

To read more about Cal’s work and philosophy I would highly recommend his blog, Study Hacks.

 

Why I quit social media

 

To be clear, i didn't make this choice lightly. I genuinely believed that I HAD to be on social media if I were to offer writing services to startups, small businesses, not for profits and courageous entrepreneurs. It would be to my own detriment not to be, right?

Wrong.

With a good dose of existential unpicking I have called bullshit on this argument and realised that it has no substance. It is structurally weak, absurd and a thing of sand (thank's Foucault).

The thing with these network tools is that they themselves have been very carefully marketed to create a perceived need within those using them.  If you're not using them, you're missing out.

Network sites like Facebook are highly addictive and random and what's worse (to my mind at least) is that these companies store your private data; things like your birthdate, your relationship status, your location, your workplace and sell it to advertisers so as they can push services and goods that you don't need onto you each time you log in.

It is simply not true that you HAVE to use them to succeed in your professional or personal life. In fact, you're probably more like to succeed if you don't use them to entertain yourself and placate boredom.

But, if one does not think carefully and thoughtfully about their actual benefit and the type of value they are adding to ones life, it is relatively easy to believe that yes, yes you are missing out or you're simply backward-living in the dark-anti progress if you opt out.

 Many people don't think deeply about why they are using social media and how it is negatively or positively impacting their lives. And it's no one's fault, we're not really encouraged to.

I do however feel that most people recognise that Facebook and the like are addictive, but it's difficult to discern for yourself whether something is right for you without having a process to walk through to make an informed decision.

So, I will walk you through my decision making process in order to give you some such framework in case you are on the fence about leaving behind any of these tools.

First, I examined value.

Value, is a rather vague term in and of itself. It says nothing nuanced about value and therefore gives you nothing substantial to evaluate your activities by.

Cal Newport however offers some guidance in discerning value.

Cal defines three types of value that are useful when assessing the value of network tools and  the role of technology in your life. They are as follows:

  • Core Value: A technology adds core value to your life if you could not do without it. And most importantly if it is intimately bound up in your definition of what it means to live life well. For example, Skype adds value to my personal life as it enables me to talk face to face with a dear friend in Sydney and to see and speak "in person" with my nephew in Perth as he grows into a little man. Family and maintaining close connections with wonderful people are bound up in my definition of a life lived well, therefore I can deem that Skype is a technology that I will continue to use: it adds core value to my days.
  • Minor Value: A technology adds minor value to your life if it gives you some minor benefit in the moment that you're using it. For example, laughing at an Instagram picture of a friend, drunk at a Nick Cave concert. This adds minor value to my life as I would derive more value from meeting her in person and hearing about the concert first hand. Thus, I cannot justify using Instagram as it is not bound up in my definition of a life lived well. I derive core value from hearing about an experience from someone dear to me first hand, not viewing the visuals of a holiday or event they went to, before we sit down to chat about it (it kind of spoils it).
  • Invented Value: A technology has invented value if it solves a problem you didn't realise you had until that technology came along. For example, Twitter enables me to connect with other writers in my field and shoot small messages back and forth. Until Twitter can along, I didn't realise I had the problem of keeping in touch with other writers in my field. In the past if I had wanted to get in touch with someone that I admire, I would have emailed or called them. Simple. Therefore, Twitter is out as I can't justify using it for a problem I didn't know I had before it came along (and I don't have).

Following this musing on what value actually meant, I concluded that a technology or network tool would need to offer me, in my personal and professional life core value if I were to continue using it.

I decided to then try an experiment. I took a month away from all for them. Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. 

Nothing terrible happened.

In fact, I gained two new clients through word of mouth and landed a promotion in my day job.

Next, I thought about what my professional goal was and I thought about the overarching frame that scaffolds and drives me to continue doing what I do.

And this is what I came up with:

Professional Goal: To craft well written, swoon worthy copy for my clients; copy that inspires their ideal clients to engage with their services, buy their products or support their cause.

AND

 To create a seamless, personalised and professional experience that leaves my clients deeply fulfilled.

Key Activities Supporting this Goal: 

  • Research my clients and their competitors patiently and deeply
  • Read, understand and digest the latest marketing and copywriting literature
  • Write carefully and with purpose
  • Be a darn pleasure to work with

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google + and Instagram I concluded do not offer significant benefit to warrant continued use.

The key activities supporting this goal make it clear that to become a truly excellent copywriter (and writer) I must work deeply. I must research deeply and patiently, I must write carefully and with purpose and I must understand the current "cutting edge" work that is occurring in the field.

I must not fragment my attention with incessant Facebook checking and I must create content of core value.

Some of the common objections to this stance may include:

"If you're not on Facebook, it's unprofessional."

I disagree.  I am unprofessional if I do not research my clients and their competitors deeply.       I am unprofessional if I do not spend stretches of uninterrupted time and focus on creating smooth, seamless processes to increase my efficiency and work quality. I am unprofessional if I miss a deadline because I have been surveying for likes and comments on my latest post.

"You need to be on Facebook for people to know that you exist."

I disagree. Apart from knowing that yes, I do exist as a human on planet earth (at least I'm pretty sure this isn't a dream) if I continue to create valuable content that people want to read because they want to read it (that is, it adds core value to their life) they will know I exist. I will have created an authentic following of people that read what I have written because of what I've written, not because they know me personally.  When you create significant value, the right people will find you. Take Jonathan Franzen as an example. He does not use Twitter. His goal is to create well-written narrative prose that deeply impacts the lives of others. Twitter does not aid this goal. And he is not lost to the ether. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the winner of the 2001 National Book Award for his novel Corrections. In short, he is a very successful author because he is very good at what he does. People have found him because he is very good at his craft and is not afraid to have an opinion. They read him because his writing is quality, not because he is an avid Twitter user.

"If you're in marketing, you need to know how to effectively use social media."

I disagree. If however I want to market myself as a social media expert, maybe then yes I will need to use social media. But that is not what I am offering. I am offering well researched, well-written copy for businesses and organisations that are aligned with my core values. If I am to continue to grow and hone my craft, that will not come from using Facebook or Instagram. It will come from actually sitting in my chair and writing.

I'm willing to step into the breach and find out if credibility does come from being a craftsman; from striving for excellence and not from displaying social media widgets on my website or garnering likes from friends.

 

And so I will display only one widget, a little envelope, by which you can email me, and I can email you.

 

(Like most of my recent posts and behaviour changes, this one was inspired by Cal NewportDeep Work devotee and Computer Science professor at Georgetown University DC).

 

 

 

 

Belinda Weaver, copywriter extraordinaire talks about things to consider when starting out, not comparing herself to others and her mildly unhealthy Dr Who obsession

Belinda Weaver is the co-host of The Hot Copy podcast. A show for copywriters about copywriting; thought the content of the show is applicable for anyone starting their own freelance or small business journey. Personally, I've found it an invaluable source of no nonsense advice and laughs.

Belinda is an accomplished copywriter in her own right. She runs Copywrite Matters and from her online hub, delivers a range of coaching and tuition services in the realms of SEO support and writing darn good copy.

I was lucky to catch Belinda before she welcomed her new little human into the world.

In this interview, Belinda talks about what to consider when starting out, the importance of not comparing yourself to others and her mildly unhealthy Dr Who obsession.

Belinda, you began your career in IT, moved into marketing and made several smart decisions before leaving your corporate position, including convincing your manager to hire you as a freelancer. I was very inspired listening and reading about your story!

What advice would you have for freelancers who have done the opposite. Who left their day job to purse their dreams without gradually letting little pieces of their former life go?

B: I think if you have taken the leap you should already know things like:

* how you will market your business and get new clients

* how much money you need to earn to cover your expenses

* how many hours you're prepared to work in order to earn that money

Without money coming in, your business won't last too long so they should be the top priorities but there is a lot of work that is needed to make that happen. In terms of getting new clients, I would focus my time on thinking about key messages (what I offer and how I'm unique) and then networking and building relationships as much as possible. You do need marketing collateral like websites and social media but relationships is where most of your work can come from.

 

Was writing always something you had; was it a tool you used for understanding your place in the world from a young age? Looking back, does it make sense that you ended up where you have?

 B: Not at all. I'm actually surprised this is a field I ended up in! The benefit that brings is that I don't have any preconceptions about being a 'writer' and I don't feel torn between writing for business and writing creatively. I'm focused on copywriting and value the skills I've developed.

 

 What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced in marketing yourself and your brand? Did you ever experience major self doubt or question whether you really were good enough to pursue this thing that you loved? And if so, how did you overcome this?

B: Each phase of my business development has brought different challenges: getting started, maintaining the momentum and adapting my marketing as I have pivoted to offer new services. 

The consistent challenge through those phases has been to maintain my focus on what I am doing, not what other copywriters and business owners are doing. It's extremely easy to compare our own 'just started' to someone else's 'finished product' and then run ourselves down over it. I always try and run my own race and if I feel like I need to up my game to up my success, then I concentrate on just being more awesome rather than trying to emulate what someone else is doing.

 

The Hot Copy podcast that you co-host with Kate Toon is excellent. It's certainly taught me so much about some of the tinier considerations I hadn't made when leaving my previous job to go out on my own. It made me think about the mentor/mentee relationship; those with knowledge and experience, freely sharing it with the younger generations. Do you consider yourself as a mentor for younger generations and those starting out, and why do you think these types of relationships matter?

 B:I guess I do (and not just younger generations ;) but only because I know that Kate that I both freely share a lot of information about how we run our businesses and why we do things the way we do. If we didn't genuinely want to help other copywriters succeed, we wouldn't do that. I also get a lot of great feedback from copywriters who get value from our blogs, posts and now the podcast.

One of the things I love about the copywriters I know is that we're all happy to help each other. The traditionally competitive model of business is that we're all fighting for pieces of one pie and there isn't enough to go around. So we can't help anyone else succeed lest they take 'our pie.' Once I started connecting and befriending other copywriters I found that actually, there is more than enough work for good copywriters and those relationships helped me get more work feel less isolated. I also learned a lot from how other copywriters worked. 

I love passing that good will on

 

How has financial autonomy and being your own boss changed your life?

 B: Being my own boss is wonderful although since starting Copywrite Matters, I've worked harder than I've ever worked for anyone else! It's tough but the flexibility and sense of control is extremely rewarding. I don't have to justify how I spend my time to anyone but myself... but I'm a hard task master! 

It's especially good now that I have a family with small children as I can work around them without sacrificing too much quality time. I can also decide how much I want to work.

All that said, I won't pretend I don't day dream about going to write in an office somewhere, working 9-5pm and getting a regular pay cheque!

 

Where are we likely to find you when you're not working on projects or co-hosting your podcast?

B:Being a mum sucks up most of any spare time I can dream of having but when I get time to myself I have a slightly unhealthy Doctor Who obsession (tv, books, colouring), I like to chill out listening to podcasts and to really get some alone time in, I meditate and practise yoga but I have to get pretty early in the morning to do that!

 

Why the world needs more ambition, and less people apologising for it!

I'd never thought of myself as ambitious until about this time last week.

Enthusiastic, passionate, committed, maybe... yes. But not ambitious. Ambition connoted for me a kind of blind ruthlessness and aligned too closely with a self serving, corporate "me and my vision at all costs," way of being and doing in the world.

To admit that my past and current endeavours were and are at all ambitious, felt shameful and "not a very nice girl" thing to aspire to being. I shuddered and berated others for their ambition and convinced myself it was a dirty word.

But I've changed my mind.

I am ambitious.

I now know that ambition can mean and connote what I want it to mean and connote. It doesn't need to be imbued with ruthlessness and shameless self promotion if that's not what resonates for me.

Ambition can be imbued with love, compassion, vitality and a deep sense of self awareness.

It can be imbued with passion and the ever present knowing that one day I will die and despite my best efforts, I will likely leave somethings behind me, unfinished.

But the biggest learning is that I can be, and now choose to be ruthless in my pursuit of excellence; unapologetically.

I choose wild abandon to the things that matter and to turn my phone off and ditch social media when I need to dig deeper than I ever have before to finish something that matters a hell of a lot to me and that I believe will leave the world a tiny bit richer than when I arrived on it.

Nobody knows that we're doing here. We're in space. We're hurtling through it and it gets dark and cold at times.  We live in bodies that take up space and feel separate from the other bodies and we enjoy the company of animals and people with big hearts. We sometimes turn our cheek to the suffering of others and feel bad about it, but we don't know what we're supposed to feel when we see these images of other bodies, bloody and silent five times or more each day or walk past someone on our way to Readings with a sign that says, "My name's Mike, I need your help, spare change. I'm homeless." 

For me, now, right now, ambition is about acknowledging that I feel things, that I enjoy some things more than others, and that when I go further than I ever have before and access reserves within me that enable me to zoom past a mental barrier that has been holding me back for too long, I feel more human.

I feel what I think is aliveness.

Ambition gives me the oomph to kick on, despite the silence and the addictive technologies that would rather see me buy their advertisers products, go into debt and create nothing of original, creative value.

Ambition is guided by what matters to me in the moment, right now and it is committed to growing and feeling and being excellent.

And right now, the world needs me to be excellent.

To be ambitious. And to not apologise for it.

Happy New Year :)

 

If you're ambitious too, and looking for a method to establish yourself on firm footing this year, you might enjoy reading this New Year's post from my current academic crush, Cal Newport.

In it, he talks about establishing what he terms a 'root committment' for the year ahead. A compass for grounding you in your goals and establishing the processes and rituals that will enable you to realise them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Cameron, Melbourne based copywriter and nature lover talks about looking after her mental health, trusting her gut and the power of her networks.

In starting this freelance journey, and not really knowing where to begin or who to turn to for advice, I sought to locate some ladies who were kicking butt in a similar field and had the willingness to share some of their tips and insights with me.

I came across Sally Cameron's website and was blown way not only by her compelling copy, but by the integrity and authenticity with which she told her story of becoming a freelance writer and editor. It inspired me greatly :)

I sent her a cheeky email and she was too happy to depart some of her learnings. 

In this interview, Sally talks about coming back to her corporate role after her honeymoon, the power of her networks and living the simple life.

 

Sally, In a reflective post on your blog, you wrote about what you've learned about yourself and freelancing since quitting the corporate 9-5.

I must say I was inspired by your level of self-awareness and ability to distil down your key learnings. What I loved was hearing you speak about resilience, trust and courage. 

I feel it's fear of not being looked after (by the universe or the thing bigger than us that we don't understand) that prevents many people from not being able to let go of something that's no longer working for them. What do you think it was that enabled you to let go? And what advice, beyond "believing in yourself" would you have for freelancers who have just started out, or people who are wanting to make a good go of working for themselves but are struggling to take the first step?

S: First of all, thank you, Jess – that’s really kind. It’s always lovely to hear that people are reading and resonating with my rather random posts! There is so much to this – where do I begin? The fear is huge. HUGE! I think I knew for a good couple of years I needed to quit and do something else, but that pesky old fear had me glued to my seat. It was far easier and more comfortable to stay put, so I told myself I’d soldier on and figure it out when I eventually had a baby. And then a couple of things happened.

The first was that I got married and went on a month-long honeymoon camping through outback Australia. I remember watching the sun set over Uluru (if you haven’t been, you must), and just thinking ‘Wow!’ The feelings of expansive joy, adventure, and possibility I felt during that time were a real wake-up call, because I realised I hadn’t felt those feelings for quite some time. Finding myself back at the same desk doing the same things in the same routine was hugely confronting, and I could no longer deny how unhappy I really was. Much more than just a case of the post-holiday blues, behind the scenes, I was also really struggling with my mental health. My anxiety was through the roof and I was quickly entering the realm of depression, which I’d never experienced before. Looking back, my poor inner self was basically pummeling me from the inside-out, begging me to pull my finger out and make some big life changes.  

In terms of the fear, I suppose by that stage I was actually more afraid to stay than to leave. I realised I was on a downward spiral to a pretty dark place, and needed to do something fast. Obviously getting to breaking point like I did before letting go isn’t ideal, but I think it often plays out that way because it’s so much harder to make the leap from a position of comfort. It’s amazing how many of my freelancing friends have very similar stories of desperation, reaching a line in the sand, then piecing together a new and better life. Choosing to freelance, I think, often represents a much deeper personal transformation.  

No doubt, resilience, trust, and courage were all key factors during that period of my life. As soon as I made the decision to leave, it was like the breath returned to my body and things started to come together. I felt empowered, strong, and supported by the universe – which was a pleasant surprise after feeling so lost. As the saying goes though, dreams don’t work unless you do – so you also have to be practical. For those struggling to get going, I’d say break the launch of your copywriting business down into very clear, doable steps – and then just get them done! For example, first I have to build my website. Then I have to write the copy. Then I have to approach these people. Then, and then, and on it goes. Make progress quickly by making the whole thing very methodical, and then draw on that resilience, trust, and courage when you inevitably have moments of doubt. Reach out to others for advice if you must, but know that ultimately the only person you need to trust is yourself. You know what to do – you just need to do it!

Also realise it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Lots of would-be freelancers work themselves into knots expecting to generate a full-time income from the get-go, fail to do so, and then abandon the dream altogether. I was fully prepared to get a part-time job to support myself initially if that was required. In the end, it wasn’t – but there are always options and being flexible can make the transition more gradual and less daunting. Just keep chipping away and keep the faith.

Beyond being well organised, developing and refining your knowledge and having excellent processes in place to manage your projects and the expectations of your clients, what would you say separates out a good copywriter from a great one? 

S: Great question. First of all, I think those somewhat less-glamorous factors you’ve mentioned –organisation, processes, client management – are absolutely key. Copywriting is only one part of running your copywriting business, and if you don’t have all your ducks lined up, it ain’t gonna happen! For newbies, Kate Toon’s Clever Copywriting School has some great courses and templates to get you started.

When it comes down to it though, I’d say what really separates a good copywriter from a great one is instinct / the knack / raw talent / whatever you want to call it. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, I reckon you either have this or you don’t. Some copywriters have all the qualifications on paper, but lack that creative edge. Others have no formal qualifications whatsoever, but nail it. Sure, with lots of training and a bit of imitation, those who don’t have it may end up being good enough – but they’ll never be great. Harsh, but true.

With that said, knowing the basic rules of copywriting, marketing, and selling is still a must. After all, you need to know when and why to break them! Having the self-belief to follow your instinct and make a case for it if necessary is also crucial. It’s very easy to revert to writing something in the most immediately obvious way, or – as I often did in my corporate role – in the way I knew my boss preferred.

One of the things I love most about being a freelance copywriter is having the autonomy to dig deep into each client project and doggedly follow my instincts in order to produce the best copy I can. Each project is a new and exciting creative challenge. 

In terms of marketing strategies to make yourself known in the community as a great copywriter, aside form your marketing connections, how did you market yourself in those early days? What worked and what didn't? And is marketing of yourself and your services still something you put much time and effort into?

S: First up, I put all my energy into creating a website I was proud of. I don’t think there’s any point contacting anyone until you have a decent place to send them. When I hit some hurdles with my web developer, this delayed my launch, but I stand by my decision to wait as it meant I communicated a professional, ‘I mean business’ message from the get-go.

Next, I reached out to the many contacts I’d gained during my corporate career to let them know what I was up to and ask them to keep me in mind if anything came up. I know you’ve asked what I did aside from leveraging existing connections, but honestly this is where I started and what proved the most fruitful. One ex-colleague in particular, a super-busy marketing consultant, referred me a tonne of work from the outset and continues to do so. I’m so grateful for her support.

Of course I couldn’t and can’t rely on her alone, so next I started to expand my network – emailing other marketing consultants, graphic designers, agencies, anyone that might need copywriting for their clients. I got a few small jobs from this approach, but it wasn’t hugely successful straight away. Some have thought of me much later on for projects, so I’d consider this more a slow-burn approach.

Separately, I also reached out to a number of other copywriters. This was not so much about generating work but making friends, getting support, and asking – a little cheekily! – for advice. Thankfully, the majority of successful copywriters in Australia are super friendly and helpful. Through The Clever Copywriting School, I’m now good friends with a number of the established copywriters I reached out to at the start of my journey. Of course, successful copywriters are also very busy, so a couple of them referred projects to me in the early days in exchange for a small referral fee. Setting up an arrangement like this with established copywriters is a great way to get some work and gain an insight into their processes.

Meanwhile, while all of this was happening, my SEO efforts began to bear fruit and I found myself in the top 3 spots for a number of high-traffic keywords. From there, things really took off and I continue to get numerous enquiries via google every week. Undoubtedly, if you want to generate a steady stream of inbound leads, your SEO game needs to be strong.

Things that didn’t work for me:

  •   Joining a few huge Facebook networking / biz groups – full of shameless promotion and too big, I think, to make any meaningful personal connections.

 

  •  Collaborating with a web developer on a combined copy and development package – she went out of business soon after and this went nowhere. In any case, I’ve since learnt I prefer working on a per-project basis, customising the scope of work based on what the client actually needs rather than attempting to squeeze them into a pre-defined package.

 

  •      Being too polite and wasting time on the phone with potential “prospects” wanting to pick my brain / talk about a not-so-amazing biz opportunity / convince me to join a networking group etc. Your bullshit radar gets really good really fast, and you learn to protect your most precious resource – your time!

 

  •       Also worth mentioning I had grand intentions of doing a monthly eMarketing piece, but never got around to it. Because business took off sooner than I expected, I was busy with paid work, and naturally chose to focus my attention on that instead. Still a valid strategy though, if you have the time to invest.

Today, the majority of my work comes from referrals, repeat business, and google. I have more enquiries than I can keep up with, so am lucky enough to pick and choose what I take on and refer the rest to some great copywriters I’m confident recommending. From a marketing perspective, the only thing I attempt to do is blog at least once a month as a means of keeping my site fresh and google friendly. In all honesty though, I usually just blog when I feel like it rather than sticking to a rigid schedule with SEO in mind. It’s a fortunate place to be. 

You've mentioned that you also write creatively. Was creative writing there your love for writing began? Are you currently working on any creative projects?

S: Absolutely, it all started when I became a prolific journaler as an angsty teen (weren’t we all?)! I was always intensely curious, a voracious reader, and loved writing poetry. I followed this passion – naively, some would say! – into a Professional Writing and Editing degree which contained a large creative writing component. And then, of course, I fell into copywriting. After a pretty dry creative period during my corporate years, the launch of my business has prompted a real creative reawakening. I’ve dabbled again in journaling, and have loved having my blog as a creative outlet. Whilst I haven’t done as much personal creative writing this year as I would’ve like to, the freedom and flexibility I get with my business has enabled me to expand and experiment with my creativity in other ways – painting, gardening, cooking, photography, etc. Claire Baker’s Wild, Well & Creative eCourse was really instrumental in reawakening my creativity across all aspects of my life in a gentler, less-outcome focused way.

In 2017 though, I do intend to do more creative writing – more journaling, more personal blogging, perhaps even trying my hand at poetry again. Actually, just yesterday I signed up to Emily Ehlers’ new The Wombinaries Writing Group – a place for budding writers to encourage and explore the practice together. It’s free to join and looks to be exactly what I need at this point in my creative writing journey! 

Where are we likely to find you when you're not writing great things for your clients?

S: Tending to my plant babies in our veggie patch (totally a crazy plant lady), reading (always), enjoying a long brunch, or bushwalking in the Dandenong Ranges. I live a very quiet, simple life – exactly the way I like it. 

 

Jay Carmichael, writer and lovely human talks about his first novel, rejection and capturing pain with clarity

Jay and I met a year or so back when he was interning at Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health. Jay struck me as an incredibly humble, passionate and genuinely lovely young person who really could write! 

I kept in touch with Jay, and when I heard that Scribe had signed him for two novels I was so excited. His forthcoming novel, Ironbark will be published in 2018 and was awarded the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. 

In this interview he talks about rejection, struggling to capture the pain and angst of adolescence and where to next.

Jay, you must be so chuffed, having been signed to Scribe for two books; your manuscript Ironbark and your post WWII exploration of homosexuality and authenticity, Marlo, that's incredible! How long were you working on the manuscript for Ironbark, and how does it feel to know that in 2018, your words will be made available in book form for a captive audience to digest?

J: Chuffed, and so full of gratitude and thanks — it’s been five years this year writing the manuscript for Ironbark, so I can hardly believe my luck. I never wrote it to be published — as a novella-length manuscript (about 45,000 words) and having a strong focus on homosexuality, I understood it’d be a hard sell. The shortlisting came after 36 other rejections and that particular award was the third last item on my submissions list! After that, I signed with an agent and had several more rejections, so I was very much ready to move on to the second manuscript. To think that people will be reading my writing is both exciting but also a little terrifying.

How do you want readers to feel when reading your work?

J: Because the book is about discovering a sexuality that’s different, I hope that young and old same-sex attracted people feel it’s authentic firstly, but also I’d like those who may be struggling with their sexuality to find a story they can connect with in a meaningful way. For a general audience, I hope they see this as a true representation of the difficulties that persist today for people who don’t fit a cookie-cutter mould.

In your recently published Overland and Guardian (Aus) pieces you talk about mental health and the anxiety associated with "coming out" particularly for young people in rural and remote areas of Australia. In these two pieces you also intimately recount your own experiences of doing so. Where was writing in your adolescence? Did it serve as an anchor or something reliable, comforting even, that you could turn to, amidst the upheaval your were experiencing?

J: I found it hard to recount my experience of coming out in those pieces of writing you mentioned, and the end result is thanks greatly to the editor at Overland for asking the right questions — even then I struggled to capture the clarity of pain and angst that I felt while first coming to terms with myself and then verbalising that to my loved ones. Words make things sound simpler than they are, but as you rightly pointed out, I did use writing as a space of comfort during high school. I didn’t start writing until I was 14, and that was a rather fickle decision. I think it’s important to point out that I didn’t consciously decide I needed such a place — it simply happened. In fact, I’d never thought of writing in this way until a year or so ago. What writing does for me is create a parallel, and invisible, world that I operate within alongside the real, tangible world, and having these two very different worlds helps to displace the disappointment, sadness and, not to forget, joy. The second invisible world is not anchored anywhere because, let’s not kid ourselves, it doesn’t exist and only I have access to it. But, it’s nice to carry it around with me.

How do you feel young (and old) writers can contribute constructively to conversations about the future?  Do you feel there are important or relevant topics in the present, or do you feel that impact can be made regardless of the topic when using the micro level of our day to day experiences as a way to speak about the macro?

J: A bunch of important topics need discussing — climate change and population growth for example. Unfortunately, humans by nature will most always put themselves first, and both climate change and population growth haven’t yet affected humans enough for us to do something effective about them. While there’s a smorgasbord of dystopian fiction concerned with a post-climate change world (e.g. no water, people fighting each other for food, blah, blah), writing in this way doesn’t necessarily affect change. (And no, I am not suggesting my writing will change attitudes to sexuality.) If we look at books that have affected change in humanity en masse, those books consists a handful of religious tomes (i.e. the Bible, Torah, Qur’an, etc.) There are others, such as seminal feminist texts. I like the idea of using the micro level of our day to day experiences as a way to speak about the macro and I guess it’s just a matter of incorporating key concerns into our writing in a way that’s not preachy, condescending and, most importantly, that is natural. As a globalised community, humans have come to a point of ‘Well, what’s next?’, and that’s a really important question. Where to from here; how do we get there; what does ‘here’ look like? I think it’s also important to look back into our history in order to inform our next steps, which is something I try to convey in my own writing.

What will 2017 hold for you Jay?

J: I’m studying for a Master of Writing and Publishing, which I will hopefully finish in 2017, I have that second manuscript to polish up and my day-job as a copywriter and copyeditor. As boring as it sounds, 2017 will be buckling down! 

 

Thanks Jay :)

Oliver Mol, author of Lion Attack! talks about the importance of pain, being earnest and the miracles no one remembers anymore

I read Lion Attack! earlier this year. I borrowed a copy from the library after listening to Oliver talk about his novel on a podcast. What inspired me most in that interview was what I saw was Oliver's ability to talk about complex experiences and ideas in a simple way. I was writing my own attempts at something resembling a novel at the time whilst working on a submission for the Scribe non-fiction prize, which Oliver co-won in 2013. In the interview Oliver said something along the lines of "if you give up, fuck you!" I wrote that on a piece of cardboard and stuck it above my desk. I also wrote to Oliver to tell him about it.

I'm thrilled to be publishing this interview with Oliver. 

I’ve been listening to Kate Tempest’s album recently, “Let them Eat Chaos” and I feel that she speaks so earnestly to the state of our world. To alienation, disconnection, apathy and fear… she is a poet using her craft to speak deeply and meaningfully about our world, urging us to take a stand and to “love more.” Are you a fan of hers?

O: I haven’t read any Kate Tempest though I was incredibly moved by her performance on Q&A. I would like to read her books soon.

In the wake of the US election announcement, I know many people are feeling quietly terrified about the future. How do you feel young (and old) writers can contribute constructively to discussion's about the future?  Do you feel there are important or relevant topics now, or do you feel that an impact can be made regardless of the topic when using the experiences of the day to day to speak about the macro?

O: It’s hard to answer your question because how do you define “constructively”? Maybe I’ll answer like this: we need to remember that we are all humans and the world is changing and we’re all scared. We need to remember to be kind.

 An example:

 My friend told me about Agnodice, this woman from Ancient Greece. Agnodice noticed lots of women were dying from childbirth so she travelled to Alexandria to become a doctor. Except there was a problem: women weren’t allowed to become doctors so she cut off her hair; she changed her appearance; she became something new. But then something else happened: she was too good at her job so all the other men began accusing her of sleeping with her patients, their wives. Fuck you, they said. She went to court. She stood before the judge and the witnesses and the politicians and the men and the men’s wives and the children and she did this: she stripped. So now people knew the truth: she was a woman, and in the story it was understood she wasn’t sleeping with their wives, and she was better at medicine and saving women’s lives than men were. Kill her, the men said. But then all the men’s wives rose up. Kill her and you kill all of us, they said. They saved her. She was the reason they were alive. She was the reason they could go on breathing a little longer. And you want to know why? Because she still believed in the miracles no one remembers anymore. She still believed in herself. 

Do you think much about the impact of your work on other people? 

O: When writing Lion Attack!, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the impact of my work on other people. I was writing it to understand the world and my place in it. I was writing it because it felt like the only thing I knew how to do. In an indirect way, I suppose, I was thinking about my work’s impact in the same way I think about my own actions and how they might affect other people. I’m aware of the contradiction there.

Maybe I’ll say this: I was aware to some extent that my book would affect other people but only in the sense that it’s inevitable some people might have experienced similar thoughts and feelings and experiences as me. But I wasn’t writing it for them. It’s always nice when people tell you your work meant something to them, made them feel something. Maybe I thought if I could express that I’d felt lonely or happy or sad or passionate about something, someone else might recognise those feelings within themselves too. I think that’s positive. To recognise the good and bad things we all feel.

Since completing the book I stopped writing for a year but now I’m writing again now. The work I’m interested in the moment seems less about me and more about others, or the issues that face others. I wrote an article about my friend who has bipolar. I wrote an article about my cousin’s suicide. Facilitating dialogues about mental health and looking at the country we live in seem very important to me right now. 

In Lion Attack, there is a heightened level of self awareness, and also a yearning in the narrator (you!) for authentic connections with others. You speak so sincerely (and powerfully) to this condition of feeling lonely in a sea of people through humour. What place do you feel there is for humour in talking meaningfully about the world?

O: A lot of the humour in Lion Attack! was produced during those periods when I consciously tried to not write a book at all. There were days and nights when nothing would come. I’d stare at the page and see all the things I was trying to do but couldn’t. So I’d sketch out jokes or things I’d seen or remembered that made me laugh, like the guy in SNOOZE drinking heaps of Mothers. When I had those anchors, those funny things that seemed too serious to belong in anything literary, I felt freer to explore the darker themes in the book.                                                                                                                              

It’s funny. Before you write anything, writing appears quite linear. There are beginnings and middles and ends. But now, or for me anyway, I know it’s different. Writing a book now seems like a puzzle. You have all these pieces that don’t fit anywhere. But the thing is you are creating your own pieces and the picture on the front of the box is constantly changing. It’s incredibly lonely and frustrating. So I guess the jokes I wrote helped with that. The jokes were like: hey, have fun with this, and: don’t forget rim-job-dog-trains exist. The jokes kept me awake because I knew at some point that picture on the front of your box would appear and when it did I wanted to be there to see it.

I’m not sure if that answers your question. Here’s a better answer: humour is critical when talking meaningfully about the state of the world. Because humour can make the pain go away but, when done correctly, it can also make the pain feel a lot worse. And maybe we need to feel pain sometimes. In life and in writing. Maybe the pain allows us to grow and appreciate and breathe.

 I wonder, ultimately, if the humour, the joke, was on me. Some people didn’t get the jokes. Or they thought the character in the book was too idealistic. I don’t mind if people didn’t get the humour but the character in the book was earnestly, or as earnest as a representation of a person can be, me.

Do you have any big projects on the go at the moment?

O: I’ve started and deleted two novels that were more or less terrible and trying too hard to be the things they weren’t. But I recognise the process because Lion Attack! was birthed from the same fire too. So, for now, I’m collecting. I’m collecting stories and they look like tiny puzzle pieces. I have them scattered in my brain but I have them scattered in files on my computer too. Here’s one:

 When I was younger and visiting my grandpa in this nursing home before his death this 97-year-old lady called me over to her bed. She took my hand in her shaking hands and called me Thomas and told me to be a, “Very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very good boy.”

She asked how Francis was and if he was taking care of the chickens. I didn’t know who Francis was but I told her he was well and that the chickens were fine. Then we sat for a while and she said, “I’m looking forward to getting off this ship.” She said, “I’m not very comfortable on this ship. The waves keep splashing me at night. I wake up soaked every morning.”

Then we smiled at each other for a while. A long smile. Still holding hands. And when I tried to let go she gripped my hand tighter and held me there. We smiled at each other like two people not understanding something, but then figuring it out. And we kept smiling because I knew then that bad things happen and I looked around and saw that they happened all the time.

What I do know is this: There’s no rush. The next book will involve illustrations and pictures and drawings. It will either be very big or very short. It will be in first or second or third person and it will be in three parts. The first part will be about Canberra in the early 90s. It will be set in Wanniassa and Erindale. It will be about rolling blading and the snake pit and Nike Swooshes shaved beneath undercuts. It will be about the birth of monsters. The ones that grow inside and eventually live right inside your head. The second part will be set in Vietnam or Colombia or Japan and there will be people together and alone and they will be laughing and hurting and dancing and crying. The third part will look at Sydney right now. Sydney was just named the second most boring city in the world. That seems like an excellent place to start.

Or it could all change too.

You have said in previous interviews, that some of the great novelists of recent centuries have been your “text books” for learning and refining your skills. What are you reading at the moment and which authors do you still look to for guidance and inspiration?

O: At the moment I’m reading Valeria Luiselli. Earlier this year I read Faces in the Crowd and now I am reading The Story of my Teeth. She is incredibly talented. I can’t wait to read more. Scott McClanahan always inspires me. At the moment I have three of his books in my bag. Last month I finished Mickey by Chelsea Martin. I like how her brain works. Several weeks ago I ordered OK by KOOL AD, from Sorry House, which should arrive any day. It looks heaps buzzy. And in the evenings my girlfriend and I have been reading Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra. I have read it before many times, maybe 10 times, but now we are reading it aloud, together. The characters in the book also read aloud to each other. I like the portality of that: ideas that shoot out of fiction like arrows, the extension of it, maybe there’s something in there, that portality, maybe I’m trying to find out. 

 

Thanks Oliver :)

 

 

J.D Salinger: A lesson in The Cold War

Recently I finished J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. 

I'd not read it during my high school years, and it had been on my list for too long. 

In short, I loved it. And I loved it even more after doing some research into what critics had said and not said about it. 

Catcher was birthed into a social political context of opposition-between East and West, between capitalism and socialism and of decolonisation. The novel was written in 1951, and just four years later it had sold five million copies. Not a bad effort on Salinger's part.

I've been reading around Catcher, into much of the criticism written about the novel back in the post-war era. Strikingly, critics tended to use universalist statements to talk about the major themes of the text, and failed to interrogate and critically engage with Catcher's immediate historicity. In short, a book written in the juiciest part of the post-war era, was not considered a book about the post-war era.

Interesting!

Catcher became a novel about "the horrors of modern life" and "a typically heartbroken adolescent," rather than about the institutionalised class distinctions that pathologied homosexuality, denied African American veterans access to housing and created wholly 'white' middle class suburbs in which men and women were expected to fulfil gendered role expectations, marry and have 3.2 children and realise their individuality through their consumer choices.

Understandably in the post war context, so we're talking 1945 onwards, American's were feeling particularly disillusioned and vulnerable. With the "red scare" or fear of a totalitarian communist regime looming, the government, namely Richard Nixon and Harry Truman were intent on ensuring that American's were kept in a perpetual state of heightened arousal... just enough to ensure that they would continue to spend what they earned. Nixon and Truman also wanted to ensure that third world nations that were newly emerging as independent and 'free' from imperial control would look to America for the model as to how a 'free' society should operate.

Elaine Tyler May has written an incredible book about families in the Cold War era. Homeward Bound explores the ideology of domesticity that, led by Vice President Nixon, was premised on the idea that capitalism's superiority could and would be realised (and the threat of communism avoided, or at least deflected) through the reorganisation of society around domestic consumption and a suburban utopian lifestyle, lived in accordance with gendered role expectations. The state sold domesticity to the people as the ideal through which security and sought after meaning could at last be located. The nuclear family in the nuclear home became the most tangible symbol of post-war democratic abundance.

Robert Fishmann also wrote a quite excellent book. Bourgeois Utopias suggests that suburbia was a utopian site in its own right because it promised freedom from the corruption from the city through a return to nature and restoration of harmony. The suburb derived its power from its capacity to express wealth, abundance, independence and in the freedom that could be realised through making consumer choices that satisfied inner wants. Interestingly however, post war suburbia was predicated, and derived its utopian status through the principle of exclusion. Corporate work was excluded from the suburban residence, tamed yet abundant greenery was contrasted with the polluted city scape, women defined by their role as homemaker within the home were excluded from the world of productivity and power, white populations were excluded from black ones, heteronormativity excluded and pathologised homosexuality. The affluent middle classes in their suburban residences were alienated from the capitalist, consumer world that they themselves were creating.

Holden knew that there was something askew. He knew that Nixon and Truman's promises of security and democratic abundance were rubbish...he knew they were "phonies."

In the opening chapters Holden speaks to us about Old Ossenburger, and it's probably one of the funniest streams of narration in the text, and it's worth quoting at length from Catcher, for the laughs.

Prior to leaving Pencey Prep, or rather being kicked out of the college, Holden remarks on “Old Ossenburger, this guy that went Pencey,” that had the memorial wing of Holden’s dorm named after him.

Holden says that Ossenburger, “made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey.” Holden has no respect for Ossenburger, viewing him as a man of little integrity, claiming that he “probably just shoves them (his dead clients) in a sack and dumps them in the river.” Holden recalls back to the first football game of the season, wherein Ossenburger came up to the school, “in his big goddman Cadillac,” and made a speech, “which lasted about ten hours.”

He started off telling us about fifty corny jokes, just to show what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to give him a few more stiffs. The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot shot and all then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing.”

LOL!

But wait... perhaps Holden's adolescent language, his crude judgements and his hyperbolic accusations point more to the truth underscoring his rejection and to the much larger and more insidious implications of those that used and abused their class privilege.

Holden’s adolescent lens renders his critique of Ossenburger with far greater clarity than had he claimed that “this man claims legitimacy for his money, his Cadillac, his business ethic, his eminence and class privilege by enlisting religion on his side.” Holden is deeply perceptive to the economic and social arrangements of capitalism that afford someone like Ossenburger social privilege and upward mobility and it is the fart, the antithesis of decorum and ceremony, that Holden welcomes and celebrates. The fart is an assertion of the body and an assault on ceremony and rigid social convention and exposes Ossenburger’s hypocrisy, as it directly opposes the false morality that legitimises his illegitimate actions through an appeal to religion.

I could go on, but perhaps I'll come to the point that is; the tendency of critics, throughout the post-war era, to universalise Holden's predicament, minimise and reduce to it to a "spiritual sickness" or a discussion of the "human condition" fail to promote meaningful engagement with the utopian fantasy that was the capitalistic, work to consume ethic, the legislations that excluded women, African Americans and homosexual’s from realising full social participation and pathologised those that transgressed and challenged class privilege.                    

Holden, through his adolescent language and severe judgements of those who occupy positions of power and utilise their class privilege to manipulate and reproduce their power, exposes the radical insufficiency of and fundamental flaws in Nixon and Truman’s malevolent myth of classlessness and the promises of freedom inherent to the domestic ideal.

 

Bibliography

Fishmann, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias. Basic Books: New York, 1987.

Medovoi, Leerom, and Duke University Press. Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity. New Americanists. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Back Bay Books: New York, 1951.

Tyler-May, Elaine. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Harper Collins: 1988

Image courtesy of:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/salingers-letters-by-nils-schou-book-review-losing-sight-of-the-catcher-in-the-rye-author-a6758901.html