Why do you write?
Writing helps me better understand the world around me. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. If I didn’t write, I’d feel dumber and less human. As a journalist, I deal exclusively with facts, and a big part of my work is asking ‘why?’ so that I can help my readers to better understand the world around them, too.
How did you come to writing?
My love for reading came first, and I think that’s how it has to be. I read voraciously from a young age, thanks to my teacher-librarian father, who brought books home by the truckload. English was always my favourite subject throughout school, and afterwards, I began reviewing live music shows in Brisbane for local street press. These early experiences earned little money, but were enormous in terms of offering me experience, purpose, regular deadlines, and the experience of being accountable to other people. Everything I’ve written since then has been an extension of those first writing gigs back in 2007.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I’ve always worked as a freelance writer, and never in an office or a newsroom, so building discipline was – and remains – the biggest obstacle. How do you force yourself to sit down and write when video games, friends, and other forms of entertainment are just a few metres away? I lived in sharehouses between 2009 and 2012, when I was first starting out as a freelancer, and I did my best to hustle for new work every day. My housemates were university students or other young professionals who went to a workplace each day, and wondered how I was able to work independently. The answer is through trial and error; some days, when editors weren’t replying to any of my emailed pitches, it was just too hard to resist joining in on the PlayStation FIFA session with my mates. But most days I was able to achieve what I wanted to achieve, while keeping my eyes on the horizon and imagining the career I eventually wanted to achieve as a professional writer. And as long as you’re getting something done most days, you’re winning.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
In addition to what I’ve outlined above, an essential element of my freelance career is my mentor, who approached me when I was just starting out, and who helped me to keep my eyes on my long-term goals. This is important to keep in mind when I’ve had a shit week, where things didn’t go to plan. Each Friday afternoon, before I clock off for the week, I send my mentor an email summary of what happened in the preceding five days: wins, losses, my emotional state, and anything else that relates to my ability to continue working as a professional writer. His background is in business and entrepreneurship, rather than writing, so he’s essentially a business adviser who offers support and encouragement, and who pushes me when I need to be pushed. Those weekly email updates to him now date back seven or eight years, and by going back and reading them, I can see a clear link between the young, clueless idiot who started full-time freelance writing in 2009, and the slightly older, slightly more clued-in idiot I am today.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
I’m a freelance journalist who specialises in writing feature articles, so my writing time waxes and wanes depending on where I am in the pitching, reporting and writing process. Some weeks, I do nothing but report, which means I’m out in the field with my notebook, pen and voice recorder, gathering raw data that I’ll eventually have to turn into story. Reporting is the fun bit: meeting people, talking to them, watching them closely, asking as many dumb questions as I can think of. Writing is the hard bit, when I’m alone, and can no longer avoid the task of turning data into story. Deadlines help with this last part: if an editor is expecting my work at a certain time, I don’t want to disappoint them, as I pride myself on meeting deadlines. At any point, I might have between zero and five stories assigned, all at different points on the reporting/writing spectrum, so much of my work week involves juggling these assignments, toggling between the most urgent and most interesting work, while also pitching new ideas.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I work from home, as I’ve done since I started full-time freelance writing in 2009. Right now my desk is in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment I share with my wife in inner-city Brisbane. I have a big monitor directly in front of me, where the words appear, and my laptop stacked on top of textbooks beside it. Wireless keyboard. A great chair. An adjustable desk, which allows me to sit or stand depending on how my back muscles are feeling. Speakers to blast music at all times. Headphones for when my wife gets sick of music being blasted at all times.
What are your essential writing tools?
Reporting requires a notebook, pen and voice recorder. Writing requires Scrivener for notes, research, first drafts and interview transcripts, then Microsoft Word for the final draft that’s emailed to an editor. Music is an essential tool: mostly, I listen to instrumental electronica, hip-hop or post-rock, as I find it difficult to think and write something meaningful while hearing other voices. My go-to instrumental playlist includes artists such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, LCD Soundsystem, Moby, Fuck Buttons, Explosions In The Sky, The Dust Brothers, Clint Mansell, Cliff Martinez, In Each Hand A Cutlass, We Lost The Sea and Aphex Twin.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
Your curiosity is your strongest asset. That’s particularly true in journalism, where the job is to ask questions and make sense of the world, in order to explain it to others. But if you have a genuine curiosity about people and the decisions they make, and you can translate that into compelling words on the page, you’re in for a fascinating life.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
Each week, I read The Weekend Australian, the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper and The Courier-Mail. Not every word of every publication, but the bits that are interesting to me: the features, the arts pages and some of the news analysis. When I’m not able to read those on the weekend, I’ll continue browsing on my iPad while lying in bed each night. I also read books and longer articles (via Instapaper), and each week, I collate seven of the best things I read into an email newsletter, Dispatches, which you can sign up for here.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
Start writing. Starting is the hardest part. It’s easy to think of excuses or reasons to not start. But having a deadline is the best incentive to start. Write a shit first draft and then start cutting and sculpting to make it stronger. It’s easier to edit a full page than a blank one.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Immerse yourself in reading great writing. The love for reading has to come first. Look at the best practitioners of the present day and in the past. Learn from what they’ve put on the page, and try to find interviews where they talk about how they work. Podcasts are great for this: I love the American podcast Longform (https://longform.org/podcast), where each week, a successful writer or editor is interviewed at length. I borrowed this concept for my own podcast, Penmanship (http://penmanshippodcast.com), which has been published on a fortnightly-or-so basis since May 2015. Penmanship features me talking to Australian writers about how they earn a living from working with words. Past guests include Sarah Ferguson, Chris Masters, Trent Dalton and Anne Summers. If you’ve read this far, I think you’ll enjoy it.
Andrew McMillen is an award-winning freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia. His feature journalism has appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, Rolling Stone, Good Weekend, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, BuzzFeed and The Best Australian Science Writing 2016. He was named Freelance Journalist of the Year at the Queensland Clarion Awards in 2015 and 2016. His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, was published by UQP in 2014. He also hosts Penmanship, a podcast about Australian writing culture, which features in-depth interviews with people who earn a living from working with words. andrewmcmillen.com