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Finding The Write Mix

It’s bad etiquette for a journalist to make an interview about them. But I couldn’t help myself.

I was chatting to celebrated Victorian chef Ben Shewry of Attica fame for a magazine feature about his restaurant being listed in the prestigious San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

This is a man whose hunger for creating food perfection wakes him before dawn and sees him hunting Ocean Grove beaches for the most delectable samples of seaweed and samphire to incorporate into his award-winning dishes. A man who spends most of his life in a commercial kitchen, pouring his heart onto a plate for a living. A man whose passion is also his work.

“How?” I had to ask him. How does he find the time and energy to take his passion home? To play creatively with food outside the office? To cook for money and just for himself?

They might sound like reasonable questions to ask a chef for an article, but they were inspired by an ulterior motive. At the time, I was working full-time for the Geelong Advertiser’s newspaper and magazines and trying to find the motivation to write fiction at home.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job, but fiction was what drew me to writing in the first place. It was mostly a need to pay the bills that meant I landed myself a position at a newspaper. But after a long day of draining column and feature writing, editing and proof reading, I couldn’t manage to slide myself behind the home office desk and keep creating the words and worlds – especially fictional ones.

So, I found myself interested in how chefs, dance teachers, graphic designers and, more analogously, professional photographers – people who typically earn a living from their passion – manage to pursue it outside of work, as well. Can one passion pay the bills and feed the soul? If so, how?

Of course, I was hoping for a magical, easy answer. I wanted there to be a 100% Muse Extract Supplement I could take or a Hermione-esque time turner I could apply to the Ministry of Writers for that would make mixing work and play a little easier. But, no. No such luck.

Like all creative pursuits, motivation has less to do with waiting for inspiration and is more just a matter of finding it yourself. Like anything else in life, if you really want it then you’ll find the time and energy to do it. Bum in chair. Easier said than done but the truth all the same.

And the fact is – or was for me, anyway – it’s surprisingly easy to find and convince yourself of a reason to avoid doing something you’re afraid of doing in case it turns out that you’re terrible at it. Sometimes, it’s easier to be ‘too busy’ than a ‘bad writer’.

So, after giving myself a good talking to, I began dabbling in fiction in my spare time. Submitting short stories to competitions and working on over-ambitious novel outlines, attending fiction workshops and searching out writers’ groups.

What I learned quite quickly about fiction is that, in terms of getting the work done (and done right), it’s really not that different from writing non-fiction for a living. Perfectionism and self-doubt are productivity and creativity killers. You must let the first draft be shitty because all writing is re-writing. Feedback is essential to improving your craft. You must read the work you’d love to write. The muse only cooperates when you’re willing to do the work – whether it’s floating around or not.

Since taking up fiction I’ve quit my desk job and became a freelance lifestyle journalist, columnist and copy writer, making it easier to prioritize what I want to work on instead of my time being dictated by office hours. But because fiction rarely pays a bill let alone the bills, non-fiction is still king. I’m slowly learning, though, how to keep my bum in that chair past 5pm and dive into a world of my own creation. This year I even finished my first manuscript.

But beyond balancing writing for work and pleasure, beyond finding the time and energy for both a career and a passion, there are also huge benefits to mixing the two types of writing themselves – non-fiction and fiction.

As it turns out, it’s a great combination and I think I’ve become better at each because of the other.

Interviewing countless subjects for magazine features, from mountain climbers to CEOs, has taught me to identify their best quotes. I’ve learned how to listen out for the one line that reveals something truly meaningful about someone, is universal and honest, or is bursting full of character. This skill translates to writing dialogue for fiction. In the same way that 80 per cent of what my interview subjects say will end up in the bin, I know a lot of what my characters might want to say isn’t necessary to the story. Just deliver those few killer lines.

Non-fiction (particularly hard news) has also taught me to write simply and succinctly in regards to structure and plot. It’s showed me that it’s not about fancy words but about the right words. In both crafts, you need to master the rules before you can break them and until then, it’s usually best to keep things simple.

Writing fiction, on the other hand, has given me a new insight into non-fiction, too. It’s training me to find more meaning behind the subject matter. I’ve learned how to uncover themes in my magazine features that I can draw on to frame the piece or give it a universal slant. Fiction has also shown me how to write more cinematically and use every sense to bring a real life scene right into the reader’s living room.

“The sad reality is,” Ben Shewry told me, “that a lot of chefs spend all day making food for the pleasure of hundreds of strangers, then are too tired to give the same love to themselves or their family. It’s very important to me to just find the time for both.” So whether it’s work and play, making money and indulging your passion, fiction and non-fiction, if both are important to you, I recommend trying to find the time and energy for the mix. You never know what one can teach you about the other.

Miranda Luby is a freelance journalist for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Collective Hub, Daily Life and BBC Travel. She is also an award-winning fiction writer. She has been shortlisted for the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was recently awarded a Varuna Fellowship for her YA manuscript, The Colour of Air. www.mirandaluby.com