How did you get your start into journalism?
I started out as a stand-up comedian but was mediocre. I was desperate, unemployed and nothing was working in life. So I wrote some pieces about going to a movie. I wrote about the people sitting next to us and our war over the armrest, about my wife shovelling popcorn into her face, what happened before the movie, and afterwards. I sent them off to every publication in the country. The only people who got back to me were The Age. They asked me if I wanted to try this out for a while. It kept going and became a column, then got locked in and then they started sending me out to bigger stuff like symphony orchestras. After a while I got bored of that; it started becoming less about the event and more about self and it got very introspective. The fundamental thing I wanted was that there would be a chuckle in there somewhere. I wanted it to be form of escape from all of the heavy business going on in the newspapers.
Does a writing background make it easier to write as a journalist?
The most important thing you can learn is editing, where you learn what does and doesn’t need to be said. To trim off all the fat was something I learned in stand up. If you’re in front of an audience and you’re blathering then you’ve lost them. You’ve got to get to the meat of your joke, topic or your concept. Learning the economy of language made me a much better writer. The same rules should apply with your writing.
How do you come up with your material?
For the Modern Guru column readers write to me with their questions, sometimes silly and sometimes serious. What I do is a piss-take but there has to be a nugget of actual sense in it. It can be hard; it fences me in so with my Age column there’s more freedom, which is really exciting because it can go anywhere and start from anything. The actual writing isn’t what takes the longest; it’s just lying in bed at night thinking that you have nothing to write about. There can be a lot of dark nights of the soul, but all writers go through this.
What do you do when you have no ideas and a deadline looming?
Deadlines are the greatest problem solvers because if you have to deliver and your income hinges on it, you’re going to come through with something. I don’t believe in writer’s block; you have to dig hard into your brain like you’re a miner and it will be there. It’s a process like the potter throwing a lump of clay onto the wheel; it’s just this amorphous ugly blob at first. You just have to put your head down and get to that deadline and deliver. It may not be brilliant but it will be okay. You should never cop out.
Has there ever been a piece you weren’t allowed to publish?
The piece wasn’t fantastic; it was written in my early days where I was on a learning curve. I got cocky and thought I could write about anything so I wrote about going to a local brothel. Not for the “fun stuff” but to have a look inside. It was the strangest experience of my life. I was invited to a show called Miss Nude Australia. I thought it was going to be a beauty pageant but turned out to be something completely different. I won’t go into the details. I wrote it thinking it was great and The Age refused to publish it. The other piece was one they did publish and is an example of what you should never do. I did the unforgivable thing that is writing a column about writing a column. I did this smug piece about how I could write anything; I was on a dollar a word so I was just going to keep writing this sentence. It was lazy and the editor sacked me immediately. I heard he was so angry he threw a chair across the room. Incredibly readers complained and wanted me back. Two weeks later I was rehired.
What advice would you give those looking to get into journalism?
Be open to trying a multitude of things. I can only speak on behalf of newspapers but if you’re lucky enough to get a job at a newspaper, the newcomers are thrown into the tech section, they’re writing gardening stuff then they’re working in the arts section so you’ve got to have broad interests. Make yourself available, be gung-ho and make it the best thing you can write, don’t hand anything in half assed. People ask me they want to write for the newspaper and what should they do? Write three stories, get three people you trust to read them and then pick the best one and send that one in. Show that you can do this; you’re the best, keen and prepared to go above and beyond.