KYD Writers’ Workshop and Extraordinary Routines bring you a monthly column delving into the routines, writing habits, rituals, challenges and triumphs of a diversity of Australian writers. In this edition, columnist, presenter, political commentator and author of Not Just Lucky, Jamila Rizvi shares the ins and outs of her daily routine, from setting up a makeshift office in her local cafe with friends, to finding your brain’s prime time, as well as balancing writing with a busy schedule, young family and the logistics of life.
Jamila Rizvi is a big believer in never letting a plan get in the way of a great opportunity.
‘If you had asked me a year ago what I would be doing in my career, I wouldn’t have guessed – and the same goes if you went back another year.’
With a background working in politics as an advisor to the Rudd and Gillard governments before entering the media, Jamila describes herself as a thorough day-to-day planner and a strategic thinker, with the rest being open to opportunities.
‘My career has been a series of happy accidents and circumstances that have allowed me to go after something. The last few years in particular haven’t been as planned as my career had been previously – instead I’ve been chasing things that make me happy, and also bring in a good income for my family.’
Such a ‘grab bag’ approach has led to a diverse freelance career. Currently, Jamila writes a column for News Limited, has frequent public speaking engagements, is a regular host on ABC radio and guest on Today Show and The Project, and has edited the new anthology The Motherhood.
‘I’m very all over the place,’ Jamila admits; yet switching between her various hats remains quite seamless. ‘While I don’t have a consistent platform, the themes of gender, politics and inclusivity remain the same – and the work feeds into itself in that sense.’
‘While I don’t have a consistent platform, the themes of gender, politics and inclusivity remain the same.’
For the ‘definite extrovert’, the difficulty of freelance work is not only missing the company of colleagues, but also the uncertainty of media projects falling through at the last moment.
‘In this industry, a lot of the time things don’t come off, which can be really hard. I think you’ve got to have some space in your work where you’re a little bit protected by that, otherwise your hopes – and ego – are constantly being built right up only to crash.’
A Day in the Life
I’m not a super early riser – I usually wake up at about 7am to a knock on the door from my toddler Rafi.
On a normal weekday I’m getting Rafi off to childcare at around 8am, then I almost always go straight to a coffee shop.
I have a bunch of five friends with various artistic pursuits who I write with – there’s usually at least two or three of us every day in the mornings. We treat the coffee shop as our office, really!
If it’s a writing day, I’ll write between 9am–12pm as that’s when my brain is at its best for new ideas. I’ll also use brunch as a way to reward myself – I don’t let myself order food at the cafe until I’ve done a certain amount of writing.
Some mornings, though, I will have breakfast TV, which throws everything out.
From a schedule perspective, the afternoons are a real mix and I partly miss having structure, because I am quite a right-brained, logical person.
I often do radio at least one afternoon a week, but usually I try to schedule meetings for after lunch because that’s the time I tend to have a dip in energy, and I find meetings will usually reenergise me.
A lot of having an artistic pursuit of any kind is about the hustle and having meetings about things that might not happen, like an event or podcast or things like that. You go through this process of your hopes getting up very high and then something doesn’t come off. I’m very glad I don’t have to audition for things anymore because I think that can be really hard.
On the nights I’m home, I’ll usually do childcare pickup around 6pm. I’m always home on a Monday night because the political programming on the ABC is so important. Also my husband has yoga on Monday nights, so someone has to be home with our child.
Typically between 6-8pm, I’m just with my son, convincing him to eat some dinner, making him have a bath, and reading ten thousand books before bed.
‘A lot of having an artistic pursuit of any kind is about having meetings about things that might not happen…getting [your hopes] up very high and then something doesn’t come off.’
If I’m co-hosting The Project or if I’m on The Drum, my husband will do childcare pickup. I’ll head in and do TV and come back just as my little boy’s going to bed. If there is a speaking event, though, that can run much later.
When I’m home I’m almost always sitting with my husband watching Netflix and I am on my computer clearing emails – I don’t work well in the evenings so I do stuff that requires low brain power.
Sleeping is my secret super power – I’ve never been one of those people who has trouble sleeping. I need my sleep and if I get less than seven hours, I’m really an unpleasant person; if I get nine, I’m thrilled. So I’m usually in bed by 10.30pm.
Inside the Writing Process
On procrastination as part of the writing process…
Often when I start writing I just go for it. If I’m writing a column for a newspaper for example, I don’t spend days beforehand crafting the column, I will write a column in three hours – I’m not a perfectionist in that sense.
I tend to feel like I’m procrastinating, but the procrastinating is actually formulating a lot of the work in my head. I’ll start to map out dot points on the page and then start moving them around on the page to find the best flow, and then I will write it all in a big burst.
On figuring out when your brain does its best work…
I know I think best first thing in the morning, so I’m frustrated with myself if I mess around because the best thing for me is to start immediately. I’m not someone who can go and take a break for a few hours and come back in the afternoon, as I know I won’t be at my best.
I think the challenge is to find out when your brain does its best work. Not just during the day, but even during the week. I have a friend, for example, who looks after her elderly mother-in-law on a Wednesday, and she’s completely drained on a Thursday. There’s no point in her trying to put creative stuff on that Thursday.
‘I think the challenge is to find out when your brain does its best work…the times in your schedule when you’re most creative and you’re most alert.’
So don’t try and force yourself to do it when it’s not coming. Work out the times in your schedule when you’re most creative and you’re most alert. For me, it is first thing in the morning. For a lot of people I know, it is the last thing at night.
On the book writing process…
I had been thinking about the book for at least a year, maybe longer before I signed the contract with Penguin. In that year, I had almost been doing the research by accident in advance because I love reading that kind of content – I am someone who will read something online and end up at the Berkeley journal article.
I had a folder in my email that was the book concept, so then I sat down at the end of that year to write a book proposal with an outline of the book with some research behind it. From the day of signing the contract with Penguin to finishing the first manuscript was nine months; I worked on it two to three days a week for nine months. I was quite disciplined about it.
It was probably a bit stifling from a creative perspective, but I actually sat down and looked at how much they were paying me for the book advance and thought, if I was being paid a reasonable amount per hour, how much should I work on this book?
You can tell I’ve got a commerce degree! But I was worried I would pour my life into this book and while I would create something great, I’d lose out for my family financially and I really didn’t want that to happen.
For me, writing is how I make money, so if I was going to have to effectively spend a huge chunk of time writing without getting paid, it just wasn’t going to be a good financial decision.
On the best piece of writing advice…
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got is to stop when you’re on a roll. If you stop at the end of a chapter – like I did when writing the book – starting again is really hard because you’ve got to start a whole new chapter, a whole new thought. But if you stop in the middle of a thought, you’ll spend all the time you’re away from it writing it in your mind and you’re itching to get back to writing rather than putting it off. It’s painful to leave but it’s actually really good for you.