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, writer, actor, playwright and co-creator of SBS series Homecoming Queens Michelle Law shares a glimpse into her day-to-day life as a freelancer, her process of reluctantly becoming a morning person, and her thoughts on collaboration and defining success for yourself.
To hear Michelle Law recount the number of freelance projects she’s currently juggling, it’s easy to make the assumption she possesses the elusive secret to being a productive freelancer.
She writes for print, film and television, and theatre, with her debut play Single Asian Female attracting sold out crowds at La Boite Theatre Company and Belvoir Street Theatre. Homecoming Queens, the web series she co-created, co-wrote and co-stars in premiered on SBS OnDemand earlier this year, and she is currently working on the feature film adaptation of Alice Pung’s young adult novel Laurinda. Michelle is also working on two new screen projects with regular collaborator Corrie Chen, and a musical is even on the horizon.
But despite her run of successes, freelancing hasn’t been a walk in the park. ‘My first year of full time freelancing was really, really hard – the whole of 2017 was me trying to figure out what my daily routine was, and to stay disciplined with that as well.’
It takes time to adjust from the security net of a day job – Michelle had previously worked as a bookseller at Avid Reader – and yet such periods of learning and uncertainty are rarely talked about.
‘My first year of full time freelancing was really, really hard – the whole of 2017 was me trying to figure out what my daily routine was.’
‘It was really isolating, because I lived alone at that time,’ she says. ‘I’m now in a better headspace and routine of working for and by myself, but I’m still re-configuring things to make sure my day is productive.’
Michelle regularly juggles multiple projects, setting aside time for each project through the day. Recently, she has had the luxury of blocking out time to work intensively on larger projects, setting freelance projects aside.
‘Writing the first draft of Laurinda involved working on it every day for about three or four weeks. That was a really stressful time because I was also moving interstate, so I had to get it done while I was packing.’
With large projects like these has also come the need to say no. ‘For me, it’s about knowing what I actually want to do and being able to say no. I’m often too nice – I don’t want to disappoint other people, but that’s led to burnout and also not having the space to think about the projects that I actually want to do.’
A Day in the Life
The most challenging thing for me is like getting up in the morning because I like to sleep in, especially in winter. But in the last six months or so I’ve discovered the benefits of waking up early and so I’m becoming one of those morning people, but reluctantly.
That said, the last couple of months since I moved to Sydney have been pretty chaotic. When I was in Brisbane, I would generally wake up around like seven-thirty, have my breakfast, and by around nine I’d look at my emails and respond to the really urgent ones and leave the rest for later. Then I’d get started writing whatever I’m on deadline for.
‘I don’t want to disappoint other people, but that’s led to burnout and also not having the space to think about the projects that I actually want to do.’
But at the moment I feel quite unsettled, especially because I haven’t set up my office yet. Like, none of my books are out – they’re just still in boxes and a lot of things are still in storage. I haven’t really been able to do too much work except for the stuff that’s really pressing and I’m just sort of working at the dining table. But I always have like a cup of tea or something beside me!
I’ll either go out and get something for lunch or I’ll make something at home – just something that involves stepping away from the work.
After lunch I’ll have a bit of a break and maybe watch some Netflix or whatever is on SBS On Demand.
I tend to watch mostly crappy reality TV in the early afternoon, because if I watch a show that I’m genuinely invested in, then I do get sucked in and it feels like work. Or I just go on Facebook or Twitter or something.
I’ll work as much as I can until the late afternoon. In this time I’ll have a period where I’ll try and answer all emails from that day.
I used to be a total paper diary type of person, and then I started becoming really paranoid about losing it, so I transitioned to using Google Calendar and basically have a to do list for each day. I will always have it on a monthly view, so I can just see what’s coming up, and then depending on what deadline I have, I block out certain days to do that task, or if I don’t get it done that day then I just move it to another time. I think the joy of freelancing is that you have that flexibility to some extent.
Unless I’m really on deadline and it’s urgent, then I’ll stop working at around dinner time. I normally cook or go over to friends’ places, or I might see my family.
A lot of people ask me, ‘Oh, when you move to Sydney, do you think that you’ll be distracted and going out a lot more?’ There’s definitely heaps of cool stuff to see here, and a lot of people who are great to catch up with, but at the same time, I’m mostly still myself in terms of routine. I think it helps that I live in a quieter suburb so I don’t feel that pressure of having to go out and see everything and do everything.
I’ll watch something and then have a shower. If I’m reading a book I’ll read that before bed, but generally I just sort of pig out on social media a bit until I just get bored and fall asleep. My boyfriend is normally asleep before me so I’m alone, staring at, like, Dr Pimple Popper.
‘I think it helps that I live in a quieter suburb so I don’t feel that pressure of having to go out and see everything and do everything.’
I tend to wake up at four or five in the morning because my cat wants to be fed – I think that’s why I like to sleep in a little bit more, because I’m like, he stole this time from me!
Inside the Writing Process
On being part of the writing community…
It’s fantastic to have a community around you as a writer, but once I graduated I made a deliberate choice to not feel pressure to go out to every single thing.
There can be this mentality of having to go to every single thing and network and socialise with all the right people, but if you just do what feels right for you and what you need, then that’s good enough. Otherwise, you’ll sort of burn out.
As you get older, you realise that you have a really core group of fewer than ten people that you rely on and they on you, and that’s the same for the writing industry – you have your core folks, and then you’ve got your other writer mates that are on the periphery as well. It’s great to have all of that support, but at the end of the day, it’s really important to have your core.
On the upsides and downsides of collaborating…
Collaboration is a huge part of moving forward creatively, especially if you want to work in things like film or theatre where you really rely on other people.
When you work with someone really well, I think it’s really important to cling to that person. It’s not until you start collaborating with other people that you realise how rare it is, and once (and if) you find it, it’s really important to nurture that relationship. You really have to find people who you really respect and admire and vice versa, because you want to do the best work for yourself as well as them.
‘When you work with someone really well, I think it’s really important to cling to that person. It’s not until you start collaborating with other people that you realise how rare it is.’
On how completing a goal doesn’t equal feeling successful…
I’m the type of person who, once something is done, I forget about it and just move onto the next thing. I need to get better on reflecting on the process and like, ‘Oh, what was that like?’ How can I use that experience for the next thing to be better?’, and so on.
I was talking about what success means and all of that with my brother a couple of years ago. He was telling me about how after he submitted his PhD he just felt totally lost and was like, ‘Well, what do I do with my life now?’ because he was so focused on the end goal.
He was telling me he learned it wasn’t about the goal necessarily. Like, you should have goals in mind, but at the end of the day, the process is the most important thing. It’s a real privilege to be doing what we do. You should be focusing on how you get the project done and that’s what should be fulfilling, as opposed to the end product.