Jamila Rizvi is an Australian writer and commentator. She began her career as an advisor to the Rudd and Gillard Governments, and then became Editor in Chief of Mamamia. In 2018 she became Editor at Large of Future Women.
She has published two best-selling books, Not Just Lucky (2017) and The Motherhood (2018). She has also written a twice weekly column for News Limited, and is a regular commentator on The Project, Today, The Drum and Q and A. Jamila is a board member of the Melbourne Writers' Festival.
- Mia Freedman, the founder of Mamamia, spoke to The Garret about finding and building an audience and publishing online.
Astrid Edwards: Jamila Rizvi is a writer, commentator and editor. She was the Editor in Chief of Mamamia, and a freelance columnist for News Corp. She has published two best selling non-fiction books in two years, and she's now the Editor at Large for Future Women. In this interview, Jamila talks about how writers can approach editors, and how they can create and build a dedicated audience.
Jamila, welcome to The Garret.
Jamila Rizvi: Thank you for having me.
Astrid: I'm very excited to talk to you today. Your career is fascinating to me, but today I'd like to focus on your career in media publishing, and of course the books that you have published.
First off, what makes great content, and as an editor, what are you looking for that those who submit to you don't often do?
Jamila: Gosh, they are such glorious questions. I remember having these discussions when I worked at Mamamia with Mia Freedman a lot about ‘What is good content?’. When we would hire new staff, when we would talk to particularly younger people or interns or the like about what makes something something someone wants to read or wants to engage in whatever platform. I think it's the eternal question, if you know what I mean, in that if there was a single answer then I would be a lot richer than I am now, because I could give a whole lot of people in media some tips.
But, to me, great content – and the best answer we came up with at that time – is content that surprises and delights. And that was what I tried to do every day.
Delight doesn't always mean cheerful delight. Delight can be something that makes you sad, something that makes you feel like you've accomplished something, like you've learned something. That can be delighting. It can even be delighting to read and understand a tragedy, because you've had the experience of empathy, and you feel like you've taken your own person to somewhere else and someone else's experience and felt something, that can be a delighting experience.
And then I think that element of surprise is really important too, because when we're reading the same stuff and things feel predictable, the enjoyment disappears, the anticipation disappears, and the reason to keep reading, or keep watching, or keep listening disappears. For me, I think that's the key to great content is surprise and delight.
And now, I've talked about that. I've completely forgotten your other excellent question.
Astrid: I think you have covered it. I simply asked what makes great content, and what are you looking for that writers... When a writer pitches to you, particularly a new contributor who may not have published much online yet…
Astrid: What makes a great pitch stand out?
Jamila: For me, I want you to get me in the first two sentences, because I learned the craft of media online, I know how short people's attention spans are. And I think we've now taken those short digital attention spans and applied them elsewhere. I've definitely learned that great content has to start great. If you are ambling up to your point, if you're taking a long, luxurious stroll before you get into a story, that is not useful to me because it's not going to engage an audience. I think a good headline is a huge part of that, because it's the first initial chance to grab someone in just a few words.
I think that would be my best recommendation to anyone pitching anywhere is Just get on with it. Sometimes that means sitting down writing what you want to write, or writing your pitch and then going to the top of it and deleting the first four or five sentences, because it often takes us a while to get started.
Astrid: Definitely. So, aside from the headline and grabbing attention straight away, what are the most common mistakes you see?
Jamila: In writing?
Jamila: There are a lot of them. So, not getting to the point I think is a really big one for me.
Putting yourself into a story where you're not relevant, I think is something that particularly – I don't want to be the person that rags on Millennials, but I'm allowed to because I am one – is a mistake that my generation makes.
Astrid: Can you give me an example?
Jamila: We've been brought up in such a self-focused way, I think. I have had in the past young people pitch me stories that are stories about a conflict on the other side of the world that they have no connection to, and yet the story is written in the first person. It's like, ‘I don't want to be rude, but I don't care about you. I care about the story you're trying to tell me, and is the best way to tell this story through your eyes?’ And okay, sometimes it is. Sometimes let's say a well-educated white guy travelling to a war-torn country in Africa is going to be interesting, because you're going to give me a lens into a conflict that is relatable to me. Maybe there's a reason for it, but there's got to be a reason. If you're just shoving yourself in the story because you think you're the most interesting person in the world, chances are you're not.
Astrid: So, as an editor for online publications, a few years ago for Mamamia and now Editor at Large of Future Women…
Jamila: Yes, I start in a couple of weeks, so technically I have achieved and done nothing, but I'll take credit for it.
Astrid: I guess I'm asking what are you going to do in that capacity in that role? And is an author platform essential, and if someone's trying to write or to contribute online. How do they get noticed?
Jamila: I know it is an incredibly tough thing to do, because we are in an industry that increasingly expects newcomers to that industry of any age and of any background – unless you have a public profile already – we expect you to work for free, which is not something I agree with. In fact, growing up in the Labour Party and in the Union Movement, it is something I fundamentally disagree with. But, at the moment in the current context I think that's the only way in, and that is the best way in.
I think approaching the media industry with an understanding that you might not get paid to do what you want to do, but that you can do that anyway. There's never been more opportunities to make your own stuff and get noticed. You can make your my own. Make your own!
I speak to young graduates sometimes, especially young journalism graduates, and they think if they don't get picked up by the ABC Cadetship Program that is the end of their journalism career.
The ABC is going to take a handful of kids each year, and there was just a huge celebration at Fairfax, because they announced they're going to take twenty new recruits. Twenty in a country of 23 million!
So, make your own stuff. Get on YouTube. Make a podcast. Have a go of it, because if you can create a product and send it to someone, show them that you're good rather than talking about the fact you think you're good, I think that's much more compelling.
Astrid: I feel I have to explore this a little bit more. There is a movement in Australia, #PayTheWriters. I am associated with Writers Victoria and we do advocate for paying writers. But, I also personally agree with you that in this day and age when content is free, sometimes the choice is to put your work out there for free.
So, given both of those, it's a competing tension. How do you think emerging writers and commentators can start to monetise after they've worked for free for a while?
Jamila: If I can just explore the tension. I think it is a huge tension, right, because we say the most important thing right now is we need to value this work, and recognise the value in this work with a dollar figure.
Jamila: And that every time you write something for free, you are saying that your content is available for free, and getting another writer who is demanding a tiny amount of money, they are suddenly less interesting and less valuable, because they come at a cost and you don't.
So, I get that and I think that's a really important point, but at the same time I worry that it's almost akin to victim blaming. That we blame the young, inexperienced writer who just wants to make a go of it and doesn't know how to get started and doesn't know how to get paid. We say it's your fault rather than saying, ‘No, it's the media company's fault. They should be paying for content’.
I had this argument with my Dad quite recently. He's retired, and he's writing a PhD at the moment. It's a PhD which is a subject that's very interesting to the media. Increasingly, instead of being interviewed for articles, he's being asked to write them. And he's just so thrilled. He's been a public servant his whole life and not allowed to have an opinion, and now he gets to have one.
Astrid: What's his topic?
Jamila: Immigration and population issues. He's been published by The Guardian recently. I'm very proud. But, he kept saying to me, ‘Oh, they keep trying to pay me’. And I was like, ‘You have to take the money’. And he's like, ‘But, it's like $100, and I have to go get an ABN. I don't have an ABN. I just want people to talk about these issues’. I was like, ‘You're a retired baby boomer, so it's fine for you, but I need you to get paid so that the 22 year old who's just graduated gets paid’.
I think it's a complex subject. I don't think I've got all the answers on that, but I do get anxious about us putting the onus on that inexperienced 22 year old to say, ‘You have to demand payment, and you have to refuse to be published somewhere you want to be published unless you're paid’, because they're just trying to forge a career.
Astrid: Definitely, definitely. So, how do you commission new work?
Jamila: Well, I haven't done that for a while. [Laughter]
Astrid: When you did, and how you possibly plan to in the future?
Jamila: It was an evolving process when I worked at Mamamia. When I first started there they were quite a small blog. It's quite a small organisation that didn't pay it's non-staff writers. And that was something I had concerns about, and was something I worked with the company to be able to put us in a position where we could do that. And I think that company really struggled from the bad reputation it got early on for not paying, so that when it was rectified, we kind of couldn't get the clear head to say, ‘Hey, we fixed it’, which is a lesson in media and reputation I think, and starting as you wish to continue.
I used to commission in a whole bunch of ways. We were very much an organisation that was focused on the zeitgeist, and that's something that's really important to me. Not necessarily what's in the news that day and what the news cycle says is interesting that day, but that sense of what people are talking about. What people are talking about might not be on the front page of The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald. What people are stalking about can be… I remember publishing articles on thermo mixers before anyone seemed to be saying anything in the media, but this realisation that women everywhere were talking about this ridiculously expensive contraption that was apparently like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but could anyone actually buy one?
So for me, it was always about finding what was on people's lips without them even realising it was perhaps, and what were the issues, what were the things that mattered to people without them sitting down and dong a forensic analysis of what was important. Not what they'd say if they were interviewed by journalist, but what was actually dominating their thoughts and feelings day-to-day.
So, I used to love pieces that would show up in my inbox that caught that, that seemed like they weren't in the news, but they had touched on a thought or an idea, or a new perspective on an old problem that caught my eye. That was a huge way that we used to commission, just people blindly sending their stuff. And we would trawl through thousands of emails every week to find the gold. And it was there, it was genuinely there.
And then there were also times when we would sit there and we'd identify an issue and we'd say, ‘We need to be talking about this’. And if there wasn't someone internal on staff who had a take, we would go out and try and find someone. We wouldn't go to them with the opinion. We'd go to them with the kind of idea, and the seed of an idea and say, ‘Could you write around this? Do you have thoughts around this?’ Sometimes you'd find the right person, and sometimes you don't.
Astrid: I suspect a lot of emerging writers and commentators view the role of an online editor as a gatekeeper of sorts, and it is of course for the publication, the brand. How do you approach that role of a gatekeeper?
Jamila: I think we have a huge amount of responsibility. I remember there were occasions where the editor... The role always moved around, kind of clearing that inbox of submissions. There were times when the person who got that job would think, ‘Ugh, this is a bit below me’. Do you know what I mean? You do like – am I allowed to swear?
Astrid: You are allowed to swear.
Jamila: You do get some crap. When you have an open submissions box you get people who… Often people who aren't writers who think their story is really interesting. And sometimes the story is interesting, but the writing is terrible and it won't work. Sometimes the story is also not interesting.
And when you have to trawl through that to find the great stuff, that can be exhausting.
Often you'll get staff I think at a newspaper or a digital publication who don't want that job. But that job is such an enormous responsibility, because that job can be the making of someone, and it can be the making of your publication. I hired, during Mamamia's expansion phase, a huge number of people who I would never have found if I didn't check that inbox.
Astrid: That is heartening to hear.
Jamila: Absolutely. I think one of the best stories I've got is Rosie Waterland, who is now one of my best mates as well. We came across her writing because she sent me a link to her blog. I clicked on the link – and again I go back to those catch me in the first two sentences – the first two sentences were amazing, and half an hour later I'd read most of her blog. I just kept commissioning piece after piece, after piece before saying, ‘Why don't you just work for us, because this is getting silly’.
Astrid: What have you learned about your own writing from editing and commissioning other people's work?
Jamila: Well, I think I've learned how ordinary it is. [Laughter] To be honest. That's having got myself too much. I've definitely learned where my writing is strong and where my writing is not.
I've always loved reading. I was a kid who devoured books. I always preferred reading to TV when I was growing up, and I really liked TV too. I just like stories. And I've learned that all of those beautiful writers, the ones where you read a passage and you just think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is prose, but it feels like poetry’, that is not me, and will never be me. I think I've sadly accepted that in a similar way to accepting I'm never going to win a gold medal, or sing like Beyonce. I'll try, but probably I'm not very good. I'm not very good. The only person that likes my singing is my two year old son, and even he's got off it lately. I think he's growing out of it. [Laughter]
I think I've learned what I'm good at and what I'm not. It's taken me a while to distil down through different styles. I'm not a great investigative journalist. That's not my skillset. As much as I admire great investigative journalism, and I think it's so important, I wish I was good at it, but I'm just not.
And I think by reading other people and editing other people, I've come to see really wonderful writing in different genres, and that has made me realise what I'm not, but at the same time that leaves you with what you are.
Jamila: The best I can distil it to is I am good at explaining stuff. I am good at taking quite complex subjects, quite academic subjects, quite political subjects, and putting them in language that everyone understands. That can mean sometimes I read my own writing and go, ‘Oh, you're dumbing it down, or this feels too simplistic, or why don't you be bit highbrow?’ Then I try to do that, and I don't do it very well. There are people that do that better than me, but I am good at making the complex simple. I try to focus on that.
Astrid: Which is an essential skill for a writer. I mean, your two books, The Motherhood and Not Just Lucky do explain incredibly important and yet complex topics in a really accessible way.
Jamila: I hope so.
Astrid: No, they do indeed. Just a quick question. Who are the editors in Australia who are currently working, who are really supportive of and looking for new writers, new voices?
Jamila: That is such a great question. Tory Maguire who was at HuffPost, who has moved back to Fairfax. I'm not exactly sure what her title is now, I think it's National Political Editor. I hope I haven't stolen someone's job! Always had a great eye for talent, and I think is willing to give people a chance, which is really good.
Gabrielle Chan at The Guardian, I think is someone that is always worth pitching something up to, and she's always willing to have a go with someone new.
I like the fact that Junkee and Pedestrian have their core stuff writers, but still constantly when I click on their stuff I read something by someone I've never heard of. I really enjoy that as well.
Astrid: Moving onto The Motherhood. It's a collection of personal stories, in some cases stories of your friends about being a mother and the first six weeks of motherhood. How did you go about asking these women to write for you?
Jamila: Yes. It was quite forensic. I am a strategic person by nature. The Motherhood has 32 stories in it, so it was a lot of contributors. I started with high profile women I knew, and who I had a relationship with and who I had conversations with about motherhood before, so I knew they had something interesting to say. But I did start immediately with high profile friends, because I know the reality of media and books. My darling friend Zoe is going to sell a whole lot of books, more than my mates who are in the media who also have beautiful stories of motherhood. So, that was where I begun.
I then expanded it out to women I didn't necessarily know well, but whose writing I loved for often different reasons. I thought they might have something interesting to say, or something different to say on motherhood. The next group I went to were women who were mothers who I just thought had a fascinating story. A lot of them were emerging writers or women who hadn't been published before, but were interested in writing. There's quite a few women in there who've never written in print before, been published but are writers, and have written for long periods of time or are aspiring writers... I always I'm weirded out by that term. If you're writing, you're writing. The aspiring to be published writers.
And then I looked at the book as it was, and I quite unashamedly went, ‘Where are the gaps and experience here?’ A lot of books about motherhood, in Australia but across the developed world, are rich white women's stories of motherhood, rich white hetero women’s stories of motherhood. I wanted to tell a broader story than that, so I did sit down and say, ‘Okay, whose story am I missing here?’ For example, I wanted to make sure I had women who'd had caesareans, women who'd had vaginal births. I wanted to have women who'd had multiples. I wanted to have women who'd had miscarriages. I wanted to have women who'd given birth to children with disabilities. Women who had disabilities and had given birth to able-bodied children. I wanted to have lesbian women in the book. I wanted to have birth mothers and non-birth mothers. I tried to be as wholesome as I could, making sure we had the stories of women of colour, First Nation's women. I'm sure there are gaps. I'm sure I have not represented every experience. There are too many experiences in motherhood, but I wanted it to be an inclusive book.
Astrid: I think it very much is. I mean, these are very personal stories. I'm not asking you to name names. But, how much editing went into the individual pieces? How much did you help or include?
Jamila: Oh sure. It really varied, it really varied. I'll name the ones that required very little editing, because they can feel very proud of themselves, but I won't name the others. For example, Zoe, who I mentioned before. Zoe is one of those exacting writers who… She delivers something and it is very close to a finished product, and you're kind of like struggling through it going, ‘I've got to find something to do, because I'm the editor, otherwise I didn't do my job at all’. It took very little work.
Holly Wainwright, who writes for online and writes fiction as well is a very accomplished writer, and I remember her product being just beautifully put together.
Some of the others took more work, not because the women were bad writers by any means, but because they hadn't written about this experience before or in this really personal space before. They were used to writing in a more academic style or a more journalistic style, and some of them are also just really new mothers. And so I think when you're decompressing an experience that happened to you less than six months, twelve months ago, that's a very complex job, because you don't quite know how you feel about it yet. Some of them I think we went upwards of twenty drafts, twenty back and forwards between us. I also remember that pretty much every woman was late. No one submitted on time which is exactly what should happen when you're doing a book about new motherhood. Everyone's got better things to do.
Astrid: They do indeed. Did you ask anybody to contribute and then not publish their work?
Jamila: No. There were few people I asked to contribute who said no. Not many actually. I was really overwhelmed by how generous women were willing to be with their stories. Those who said no were mostly women with older children who just said, ‘I don't think I can take myself back there in a way that's going to be useful or effective’, which is fair enough.
But, no, everyone who I asked to participate... Actually, no, that's not true. There is one. There is one woman's story who I was working with, and I won't name her for her own reasons, but who was writing about the process of becoming a step mother, which isn't a story that's in the book. And once the book was done, because she became a step mother to children who were so much older, it just didn't work because the book's about the first three months of motherhood. I wanted to include the idea of the first three months of step motherhood, but because everyone was talking about newborns, and then this one letter wasn't. It just didn't fit.
It's made me absolutely determined that a book like this needs to exist for step parents with a varied number of stories about that experience, because it's a different experience, but it's such an important one. And one people don't write about much.
Astrid: Jamila, I'm a 37 year old de facto grandmother. I would love you to write that book.
Jamila: Yes, but I don't know anything about it, so I got to find someone who'd be good at it.
This beautiful letter from this woman that's so well done, but it just didn't fit with the rest of the book.
Astrid: I understand.
Jamila: But, it needs to be written, right? That book needs to exist.
Astrid: It does. I need a manual!
Moving along from that. Penguin is the publisher of both of your books. I'm wondering did you pitch the two ideas to them, or did you identify a gap in the market? How did that come about?
Jamila: I pitched both.
Jamila: So, I pitched both books. I think I mentioned earlier. I'm quite a strategic person. I'd had Not Just Lucky in my head for a while. A friend and I had come up with the idea for The Motherhood. I wanted to pitch them together, because I felt like that was going to maximise the money that came in to keep me going while I wrote them basically. That sounds so romantic.
So I pitched quite widely. I ended up speaking to a lot of publishers. Four publishers wanted both books, and I did say, ‘I want you to take both books if we do this’. And so I met with four publishers and they kind of put offers to me. And then they were two publishers I really liked, which were Penguin and Melbourne University Press. It wasn't that they necessarily offered the most money or had the most fancy marketing plans.
Both publishers, I liked them. I felt like I was going to have a great working relationship with them. I liked the team I was being presented with and the people, and I felt a lot of trust, but it came down to the wire on the two of them, which is always good to have two bidders in the race for anything as we know from not buying property.
To be honest, I think the thing that tipped me over the edge with Penguin was... I can't even remember who it was, but someone at Penguin said to me, ‘Jamila, we don't buy books, we buy authors. We are not looking to work with you on these two books. We're looking to publish you for your lifetime. Wherever that writing happens to go’. I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, that sounds good’.
Astrid: That's what you want to hear. If I can summarise, The Motherhood is about the first six weeks of being a new mother. Not Just Lucky is almost a social commentary, a feminist text in Australia, and then it goes so far to say. One could argue that there are a lot of books on those topics.
Astrid: I've read both of your books, and they're not like other books on those topics. I know you said you've been strategic, but how did you write about common topics not like everybody else?
Jamila: Yeah. I'll start with The Motherhood, I suppose because it's an easier answer if anything. It just came out of personal experience. I mentioned earlier about finding that kernel of truth, and that kernel of delight and surprise which makes something different.
When I had my little boy I was vastly unprepared, and I worked up until the day he was born, and was sort of in denial about having a baby. I wasn't in denial about being pregnant. I recognised that was the case, but I wasn't really keen on the whole parenting thing. It was a bit of an accident, a happy accident.Then he came along, so I went to all the baby books. I was like, ‘Oh god, baby. What do I do?’ And read all the baby books. The baby books are about the baby. I couldn't find any books that was about the mother. They're all about how to look after this little person, which is fundamentally important, and you should definitely do that if you're a new parent. Look after the baby. But, none of the books were about looking after me, and none of the books were about what I was going through. That felt like an enormous gap.
I'm not talking about what I was going through as in the medical stuff or the factual look-after-yourself stuff. I'm talking about how I was feeling and what I was thinking, and the barrage of emotions. I had a lot of anger and frustration, and I talk in the book about loneliness. I couldn't believe that there weren't books out there about that. Since having my little boy, whenever a friend or someone I know has a baby and I hear that someone's struggling... I basically just put together the book I wanted to give them.
I'm mean, that is strategic in the sense that there's clearly a gap in the market there, and it's giving the gift of other women's experience. That feels like something that should have been done before, but it seems to be striking a nerve in its honesty, I think, and it's rawness. And the fact that there are so many women's experiences, and the fact that I've asked these women to write to themselves, rather than write just a letter. I would write a very different letter if you said to me, ‘Hi, I'm going to have a baby. Write me a letter and tell me how to do it. Other than saying, ‘Write a letter to yourself’. Because I can't judge myself, and if I do, I'm only judging myself.
If I say, ‘You should breastfeed’. I'm just saying it to me. I'm saying what's best for me. I'm not saying that to anyone else. So that tool, as well, has freed up the authors to feel like they're free of that horror mummy judgement topic, and they can just say how they felt. Some of what they felt is really hard to read and really upsetting, and probably doesn't fit with our idea of new motherhood.
Astrid: It's not standard narrative that you find about motherhood.
Jamila: No. The number of people in the media who sort of said to me, ‘Oh, some of these women have post-natal depression’. And I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. And some of them don't, because it's possible to feel anger and frustration and sadness that isn't post-natal depression. That's another level entirely. That sort of reality of how brutal the early months of motherhood can be, I don't think it's something we don't really talk about.
Astrid: No. It's not talked about a lot, which takes me to Not just Lucky. How did you write a book about feminism in Australia, the workplace in Australia that didn't sound like everything else?
Jamila: I don't know. [Laughter]
I had the idea of this book for a long time, the essence of it I suppose. I think it's different, because it's a weird hybrid, and not like a pretty hybrid, like a camel kind of hybrid book, because it just pulls together the things that I thought were useful. I started off with kind of my thesis which was around the fact that there's this double glazed glass ceiling in Australia. That you have all of these systemic issues that hold women back. But, on top of that, those systemic issues then cause women to feel like there's something wrong with them, and so it shatters their confidence. And that makes it doubly hard again.
I had that thesis for a while, and I started with the research, because for me that was really important. I started with a bazillion studies. Anytime I found something interesting, I filed it away for about two years. Not in any particular grand order. I just shoved it in one folder. I think I had something like 900 links when I sat down to write the book. I started with the kind of the issues, and the research and the data, and this faith that I had that those confidence issues women had… If I was so determined that those confidence issues were caused by systemic problems in the workplace, then kind of exploring those systemic problems and just telling the story of how those problems affect confidence would in itself make women more confident.
Astrid: I have to say as a woman on a podcast, your chapter on the female voice was extraordinary, and I may have highlighted half of it. [Laughter]
Jamila: Good. I'm glad.
I started with those issues, and then I tried to look at the practical solutions. As you say, you highlight the problems and how they manifest, and then I try to give just really practical advice. Sometimes my advice, but most of the time other people's advice on how to address that, and how to solve that, and combine that a bit with my own experience in the workplace.
And then I kind of tried to thread the whole book together with personal narrative. I think, I think, this is my guess about what feels different about Not Just Lucky, is that what I was trying to achieve is that most books of this genre are written by a woman who is like really amazing, who is at the peak of her career, who is Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington. You are at the peak of your game. You've learned it all. You're a CEO. You're kick ass. You're amazing. The advice is great, but when you're starting out you kind of look up and you go, ‘Yeah sure Arianna Huffington, I'll take a day off a week to volunteer and meditate, but also, like rent’. Their experience isn't quite yours.
I remember a reference in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to the night nanny. I remember reading that and just being like, ‘Oh, okay, great. Well, I'll be CEO of Facebook when someone stays awake with my kid at night sure’.
Astrid: When I picked up Not Just Lucky, I have to admit I was thinking about Lean In, a book I did not enjoy. Despite the fact that I think Sheryl Sandberg herself is extraordinary, I did not enjoy her book, and I was hesitant thinking, ‘Maybe Jamila's book is…
Jamila: A bit Lean In-ish.
Astrid: … Is going to make me feel that way’. You didn't make me feel like Lean In, which I think is a major selling point of Not Just Lucky.
Jamila: [Laughter] Well, I think what I was trying to do, which is the only way I know how to do it is.... I'm not those women. I'm not at the peak top of my career having done it all. I have got no idea what I'm doing. I'm just kind of muddling through with everyone else.
The whole time I was writing the book on my notice book in front of me I had a picture of my audience, which is something I used to make the team do at Mamamia. I just had a picture of my girlfriends having a glass wine at dinner. That's how I imagined my audience when I was writing. I was like, ‘These are my peers. I am writing to my peers, and I'm writing to people I care about, and who I think are great’. Now, they might not think they're great, but I do. And so it's kind of like a giant pep talk.
Astrid: It is a brilliant insight into how you write. Literally, you have a photo of who you've chosen as your audience, your peers, your friends, people who you care about, and want to communicate to. What else can you tell me about how you write? And is it different when you're writing a short piece for an online compared to your book?
Jamila: It's totally different, it’s totally different. When I'm writing a short piece for online, I've usually got myself worked up about something. I tend to write very much in the news cycle most of the time. It's rare that I write outside the news cycle, and usually something has happened in the last 24 hours where I have gotten angry or upset, or frustrated, or felt like something needed to be said that wasn't being said in the debate. I tend to write almost a stream of consciousness and I edit as I go. I'm not someone who writes and then edits. When I'm writing a shorter piece I edit as I go. Each paragraph kind of gets better as I'm going through, so that by the time I write the final line, it's usually pretty much done. And I don't take very long. It's rare that I would take more than two hours to write a column, which probably says something about the quality of my columns.
But, the thing for me is that is if I take a lot longer, it doesn't get that much better. I may as well stick with the two hours.
A book I'm very different. For Not Just Lucky, for example, I had planned the entire book from start to finish before I wrote a word. I had the points I was going to make, the research I was going to make, the stories that were going to back it up. I had a very deliberate plan, and I wrote to my plan.
Astrid: How long did it take you to writing in Not Just Lucky?
Jamila: The actual writing process took about nine months, and I was working on it probably two days a week for about nine months.
Astrid: That's pretty quick.
Jamila: Yeah. I think it was, but I had done all the research in advance. And then I was kind of supplementing the research, if that makes sense.
Astrid: It does. You are a very quick writer. Two books in two years.
Jamila: Yeah. But, one of them I wrote 3,000 words of, so I just feel like that's a bit cheating. Maybe. Just a little.
Astrid: But, it was a two book deal!
So, what writing mistakes have you made, and by that I mean public mistakes? The reason I ask is we've interviewed Christos Tsiolkas on the podcast before, and he has recently spoken about knowing writers in Melbourne, knowing writers in Australia, who are too scared of making a mistake in public, and they're almost self-censoring themselves.
Astrid: Can you tell me if you do that, and what happens when you don't self-censor?
Jamila: I think everyone self-censors. To be honest, I think anyone who says they don't is lying, or hasn't left the house ever. We think about the people around us and the people our writing as going to effect. For example, I don't really write about my husband much, because he's a really private guy. Not because he's not great. Not because there aren't a well full of stories. Because he wouldn't like that.
Not Just Lucky is certainly not the full story of my experience at work. I chose carefully the stories that would illustrate my points, but also all the stories in Not Just Lucky they're about other people I checked with them. I called people and said, ‘Are you comfortable with this?’ I wouldn't have published something that my friends and family weren't comfortable with.
Now, that probably takes away from my writing to an extent. It probably makes me less good to an extent. But I am more focused on being a good friend and a good family member than I am on being a good writer. That's a decision I've made.
I really admire the writers who feel it's enough to write about themselves, and write without fear of hurting people, but I'm not one of those. I think that's definitely... I don't know if it's a mistake, because it's a conscious mistake. But, I know that probably makes my writing weaker, but it's more about what is important to me.
Astrid: What about writers or commentators who... I mean, the negative feedback online can be extraordinary. Have you ever hit publish and really been unprepared for the negative response?
Jamila: Yeah. So many times. [Laughter]
Astrid: I know a lot of writers are scared of doing that, particularly emerging writers. Do you have any advice in that capacity?
Jamila: I hate to give the advice that you have to steal yourself and find just a way to be okay with the criticism, but you do.
I think you have to find a way to be okay with the criticism, but you should never be okay with the abuse. That to me is a divide. I think if I think I am good enough and I have something important enough to say that I want to put it out to the public, then I have to be willing that the public is going to respond and say, ‘Hey no’. And some of them yes are going to be uniformed, and some of them are going to be a little bit offensive. Some of them are going to be annoying, and they're not going to know as much on the subject as me. Some of them will know more than me, and that might be embarrassing. But, that's all valid, and that's part of a civic discussion and debate.
What you don't have to put up with are the people who tell you that ‘You should be raped’, or ‘You deserve to be killed’, or in my case I often get, ‘You're a terrorist’, because having a Muslim surname makes you ripe for such criticism. That you don't have to put up with.
On of the tips… This is getting very kitschy. One of the exercises I used to make the team at Mamamia do when they were scared about writing, and they often got scared because that was a publication where we did a cop a lot of flack. If you're a young writer you go, ‘I don't want to write things anymore, people are going to say mean things about me’. So… I'm very big on vision boards. You're going to get this. Create a board or a list of the people whose opinion you have decided you care about. I'm not saying like just, ‘Oh, I care about my Mum’. She can be on there if you want her to be, but on my board, for example, Hilary Clinton is on my board, because I care. We haven't met yet, but…
Astrid: One day.
Jamila: ...I have her in my head. Someone else that is on my board is my very good friend the late Stella Young, is on that board. My mate Clementine Ford is on that board. My husband is on that board, because he's a lawyer and he thinks about legal things that are important when you are a writer. Now, I have a board of people I have met and have not met, and all people I admire. When I get criticised and I am freaking out, most of the criticism that upsets you the most is criticism that you fear has a granule of truth. Because when someone just goes, ‘Oh my gosh, Jamila, you're actually a man, and you're just pretending to write from a women's point of view’.
Astrid: You can dismiss that.
Jamila: That's not keeping me awake at night.
But, if someone says, ‘Oh gosh, you're trying to be smarter than you are. You're not actually qualified to write about feminism. You should shut up’. And I go, ‘Maybe I am. Maybe it's true. Maybe I should not’. It's the fear of the granule of truth.
And so what I do when I've got criticism that's really sitting badly with me is I run it past mentally in my head, and sometimes on the phone, all of those people on my board. If they think what I'm doing is okay, then I'm going to keep going. If they say, ‘Hey, hold on a moment. Maybe you owe someone an apology. Maybe you didn't have the right to write that piece. Maybe, you have assumed more knowledge than you have’. Then I've got some work to do.
Astrid: A final question, Jamila. What recommendations or advice do you have for freelancers, freelance writers, in 2018?
Jamila: It's hard.
Astrid: It is hard.
Jamila: I'm sitting here with you and it is hard. I think if you can possibly get yourself a source of regular income that is not writing, if writing isn't going to do that for you. If writing does that for you, well, bravo, you don't need my advice. If writing is not giving you a regular income that you can subsist on, you need to do that first. You need to take care of yourself first, because I don't think you can create great work or do great work when you are spending most of your time panicking about how you're going to rent or pay mortgage, or feed your kids, or whatever it happens to be. You do have to take care of you, and sometimes that means doing a job or chasing a career even that isn't what you would completely love. But, we're living in a flexible world. We're living in a world where you can work part-time, where you can work different hours, where you can make time for your art and your craft. That was my first one which is not a glamorous or sexy response, but I do think it's important.
Astrid: The advice doesn't have to be glamorous or sexy.
Jamila: And then the other piece of advice is be bolshy. There is nothing wrong with bowling up and asking someone you've never met for advice or coffee, or a helping hand. The worst thing they can say is no, and yes I admit being told no is embarrassing. Completely embarrassing, and you'll feel small and you will feel rubbish. But that's okay. It's only for a moment and then you can move on. You can ask someone else.
I have been rejected a whole bunch of times in my career, and it does feel rubbish for a little while, but it's better than never having a crack at it. So, I think it's always worth asking someone to give you a hand. And if you are someone listening who is established and who does have a writing career, be willing to say yes when someone asks for help. You can't say yes all the time. I get that. I hate how much I have to say no to things, but as much as I can I make time, particularly for young women – because the world's sexist, so I can be sexist the other way – who ask for my help.
Astrid: That is fantastic. Thank you so much Jamila.
Astrid: You're welcome.