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 month’s edition, author, poet and illustrator Maxine Beneba Clarke shares a typical day and her tips on dealing with freelance workload, finding the right collaborators, and avoiding dead writing time.
People often tell writer and slam poet Maxine Beneba Clarke she is ‘everywhere’ – on television, on the writers’ festival circuit, on a literary prize shortlist.
‘I think that’s the really interesting thing about social media – this common misconception that you’re always everywhere, and you’re always available,’ says Beneba Clarke.
‘People feel your presence, but really 95 per cent of the time I’m at home… I think for a lot of writers, to get books out, we have to lock ourselves away at work.’
Beneba Clarke’s career catapulted when her collection of short stories Foreign Soil won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2013. From there, her memoir The Hate Race won NSW Premier’s Award, and her latest collection of poetry, Carrying the World, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2017. Her short fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in Overland, The Age, Meanjin, The Saturday Paper, The Big Issue and more.
Currently, Beneba Clarke tends to divide her week into commissioned writing at the beginning and creative work for the rest. The majority of her time is spent working on adapting The Hate Race for the Malthouse Theatre’s stage in collaboration with writer and Erik Jensen. She is also working on a second and third picture book; another novel is ‘in the works, but it’s the kind of thing that I think will take years.’
Having several different projects on the go is key to sustaining creative momentum, she explains, especially with long-term projects,.
‘When I started out in poetry and spoken word, I was spoiled in terms of making something and then being able to instantly share it with people. I think I’m an impatient writer for that reason, so I’ve had to move progressively towards the long-term projects, rather than starting out writing novels or long-form pieces,’ she said.
‘When I started out in poetry and spoken word, I was able to instantly share it with people… I think I’m an impatient writer for that reason.’
For Beneba Clarke, versatility has been one of the most important aspect in making a living from her work.
‘Poetry’s never going to bring home the bacon… I’m not going to be able to have a book out every year. It’s not going to be sustainable, partly because of the kind of work I make and not wanting to change the kind of work I make, and partly because of the speed it is created. So I do a bit of teaching, I do events, I do other commissioned writing so I can work full time within the industry, even if it’s not always necessarily as a writer.’
When it comes to sustaining your work, Beneba Clarke shares the pragmatic advice of having friends both inside and outside the industry.
‘What tends to happen if you spend all your time at writers’ festivals and events with other writers is your world becomes very insular. I’m forced outside of that through having kids and interacting with a wider community, but I think that it’s important to know that there’s more,’ she says.
‘You know, that writing is what you want to do, and you might be very passionate about it, but there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t need to be cut off.’
A Day in the Life
The kids go off to school about nine o’clock and then I try to spend the first hour of the day doing admin – emails, invoicing, replying to people, paying bills – anything that doesn’t directly relate to creative work.
Sometimes it can be just lining up what I need if I’m going to be working on a verse of the novel and getting ready to write.
Some mornings it doesn’t work – sometimes I just faff around for an hour!
By ten o’clock I’ll be writing or I’ll be doing creative work. That could be anything from going into the Malthouse Theatre and having a meeting with my co-writer Erik Jensen or the dramaturge, or it could be starting the writing work on an article, researching for a portrait for The Saturday Paper and going online and finding out what else has been written about that person.
I’m a massive procrastinator, but also someone who will think about a piece – whether it’s a poem or an essay or a short story – so much that by the time I go to write it down on the page I’ve already done a lot of the editing process while I’ve been doing the shopping or cleaning out the studio.
‘I’m a massive procrastinator, but also someone who will think about a piece…so much that by the time I go to write it down I’ve already done a lot of the editing process.’
The bread and butter work is writing pieces for The Saturday Paper or writing essays now and again. I tend to knock those over at the beginning of the week, and then once it’s finished that’s the end of my contracted work or commission work for the week, so I’ll go back to working on the novel or the play or my creative work.
I often try to schedule meetings on the same day of the week, to maximise my time. For example, if I know that this week I have to phone my publisher, and talk to producers, or call the head teacher of a high school I’ve been invited to speak to, then I’ll schedule the calls at 10am, 11am, and 12pm on the same day. This is particularly so where I need to have physical meetings – if I need to go into the Wheeler Centre, I will rack my brains to see if I need to pick anything up from Readings or do any research at the State Library, or I’ll check in with the illustrator of one of my forthcoming kids book (who has a work space in the city) to see if she wants to show me any drafts or have a coffee. It saves me cutting my writing time by making another trip in later in the week.
When my writing first took off, I had quite young children so I would write at night from around 8pm till one o’clock in the morning, as that was the only time that I had an interrupted stretch. I’ve found it really, really hard to break that habit – I get distracted during the day and more often than not I will work from ten till lunch, and then I won’t do any more writing work until the evening.
I get the kids at three, so between one and then it will just be kind of life stuff – life admin or whatever.
I often read in the afternoon. Most of the reading I’ve done in the last six months has been work for Best Australian Stories and the Blake Poetry Prize, which I will do in that morning period because I’m most alert. If it’s reading for pleasure then it would probably be in the afternoons, evenings or on weekends.
I try not to work too much when the kids are kicking around in the afternoons, but quite often it’s unavoidable. They know that it’s how I put food on the table and they think that being on the iPad for an hour or trampolining for an hour in the garden while I make a few calls or send some invoices or frantically edit something is preferable to going to after school care. They also have sat in on my workshops for The Patchwork Bike and occasionally come to my readings. They came and saw me onstage at the Stella Prize ceremony the first time I was shortlisted (my daughter randomly climbed onstage during the ceremony). I think it’s really important that they see what I do, as I require their cooperation at home to do it – particularly in the afternoons. I’ll involve the littler one if I’m drawing (I’m actually working on some illustrations myself at the moment, as well as collaborating on a few other books as a writer, with other illustrators) or looking through illustrations in the weekday afternoons. Sometimes she’ll draw next to me and make a ‘book’ of her own.
‘I think it’s really important that [my kids] see what I do, as I require their cooperation at home to do it.’
I’ve had a separate work space at the moment at my home for the last two years, purely through an incredible turn of fate, and it’s changed my life – along with the fact that at the same time I got this space, my youngest started school. I’m not sure how long I’ll have the space for though, so I’m working like a bat out of hell, while I still have this extreme privilege.
In the evenings I watch a lot of really trashy television! The more involved a project is, the more likely I am to be binging on So You Think You Can Dance or something. But you don’t always have to be working to be an artist, you know?
At eight o’clock I will sit down again and have the really long writing stretch.
There were times when I was working on The Hate Race, especially at the tail end of bringing the book together, that I would write all night, get up and take the kids to school, and then come home and go to bed.
It probably wasn’t the healthiest thing to do, but it was the only time I could sit and get enough into the book that I wasn’t thinking about the process – I was just writing.
I’m lucky in that I do what I do full time, whereas if I was working outside of my writing I couldn’t be as flexible. I mean I do a lot of different writing jobs to make ends meet, but because all of it is freelancing, there is the possibility of being flexible with time.
I get by on very little sleep – as long as I get that period from one o’clock till seven o’clock in the morning, I’m usually good. But going from having very small kids to medium size kids, I’m getting more sleep now than I was five years ago.
Inside the Writing Process
On learning what to do with dead writing time…
At the beginning of my career, one of my biggest mistakes was feeling like I should be writing all the time, and that I needed to force myself to sit down and write, as opposed to doing a bit more thinking or a bit more planning.
One of my biggest mistakes was feeling like I should be writing all the time…as opposed to doing a bit more thinking or a bit more planning.
I think a large part of working out how to do this full-time is realising that there is no point in having dead writing time. If I haven’t thought enough about something in my head and I haven’t conceptualised it enough, what I put on the page is not likely to be brilliant. It’s taken me a long time to see there is a strong point in going for a long walk, getting some fresh air, and actually deciding, okay, for this half an hour that I’m going for a walk I can think about how I can write this story.
On admin, lists, and paper calendars…
I’m a big list-maker and every morning I’ll make a list of the things that I need to do that day – from finishing articles to sending invoices and paying a gas bill. I’ll try to do that admin in the first hour, so that I don’t get to the end of the day and realise that my power is going to be cut or something.
I’m very bad at remembering what I have to do. I have a paper calendar that’s on my wall and that’s my default. I have nothing in my phone or even a separate calendar that I walk around with. Often people will ask me if I can do things while I’m out or at a festival, and I’ll tell them I have to go home and check my calendar that’s stuck on the wall in my kitchen! That is something that I definitely need to work on.
There are times when I will get up on a Tuesday morning and I know I’ve got something due tomorrow and will have no idea what it is, and have to scroll back through my emails.
On over-committing as a freelancer…
I over-commit all the time. I think one of the problems of working as a freelancer – when you have a salary job, you’re given the amount of work that’s considered acceptable for that job and you might be given too much and have to push back, but when you’re a freelancer it’s hard not to say ‘it’s just another article, I might well just do it’, kind of thing.
About a year ago was the height of over-committing for me. In my emergence as a writer, I went from unknown to people asking me to write things quite quickly – it’s an honour and I still consider it an honour, but I think it’s about getting out of the mindset where you feel like it’s almost offensive to say no. If you have too much on your plate then you’re not going to deliver that work to a standard that that person will appreciate, anyway.
The thing I find the most difficult is giving myself a break. As a freelancer, you don’t get super, or holiday pay, or sick pay. If you take a month off, that means you lose not only that month’s freelancing work, but every long writing project has then been pushed out a month, so that income is delayed as well. Balancing that with the need to put food on the table can get stressful.
On finding the right collaborators…
Often we feel like writing is a very solitary pursuit, but it’s actually not in terms of all the people involved. I wish I knew earlier how important it is to find the right people to work with – whether it’s a publisher, or the right person to proofread, or the right person to collaborate with on a picture book or co-writing a play.
Things often work really well simply because it’s exactly the right person to be collaborating with, and those people can come from unexpected places. I trust my gut when it comes to working with other people.
Things often work really well simply because it’s exactly the right person to be collaborating with, and those people can come from unexpected places.
On having lots of ideas and killing your darlings…
I think for me the hardest part of writing is the gap between an idea and the actualisation of the idea, and I find pinpointing an idea that I’m going to be able to live with for the next three years to be one of the most difficult things.
At least once a month I’ll be like, ‘I’ve just had the right idea for a book,’ and I’ll email my publisher and tell him and he’ll say, ‘Okay, so you send me this email every month. Is this is actually going to become a thing?’
I’m someone who can get five chapters into a book and then abandon it. For me, the big thing is not putting anything out into the world that I’m not going to be able to hold up in ten year’s time and still be proud of, even though initially the creative floodgates might let it through.
It can be difficult to kill your darlings, but I convince myself that it will be used at some point. Maybe it wasn’t a poem, maybe it was actually an essay – there is always a reason I went through the process, even if it’s just a lesson that I need to plan better.