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, freelance writer and commentator Clem Bastow shares a typical day and her tips on balancing paid writing work and creative work, mastering the art of the early-morning lie in, her favourite activities for ‘thinking time’, as well as the best writing advice she received from a bloke at the gym.
Clem Bastow has always been ‘a bit of a free-ranging hen.’
‘People do like to categorise you – I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I’ve always had a 29-tabs-open-at-once kind of mind, so I tend to get frustrated if I find myself being boxed into one thing.’
‘Freelance writer’ is often the easiest catch-all, but Bastow’s work spans pop culture commentary, broadcasting, cultural criticism, personal essay, and op-ed, regularly appearing in The Saturday Paper, The Guardian, Fairfax outlets and more.
Having finished a Masters of Screenwriting earlier this year, she can now add screenwriter and teacher to the list.
Bastow has learned to embrace being multipassionate and the uncertainty that comes with not being strictly classifiable. ‘As time went on I became more comfortable with not necessarily knowing what I was doing at any given time.’
Bastow describes her trajectory as a writer as a surprise – after high school she enrolled in fashion design for two years, but when she found she wasn’t enjoying the course, she started a blog about a band she liked, which led to experience in music criticism.
‘As time went on I became more comfortable with not necessarily knowing what I was doing at any given time.’
‘It’s all been a bit haphazard. Having seen Almost Famous, music criticism became the thing I was interested in – I went back to uni to do professional writing and editing in 2003, and dropped out after a semester because I was too busy with writing work.’
The day to day variety of Bastow’s work means that her routine is constantly in flux. ‘I find month to month, I work differently. Sometimes I really love writing early in the morning, sometimes it’s an all-nighter, and other times I need to set the Pomodoro timer and do a couple of sessions in the morning and that’s it for the day.’
While such flexibility is a perk of freelancing, many freelancers can relate to not really knowing if they are doing it right, or wishing they could be more structured. For Bastow, freelancing is often a case of experimenting.
‘I often wonder what my screenwriting practice would be like if I was more regimented about it. Now teaching is done for the year, I’m keen to try week of writing at 5am or giving myself a daily word limit.’
A Day in the Life
Most days I have a clock radio that goes off at 6.58am and I get a minute of classical music before the news starts, which is a nice buffer – but I do tend to find I wake up of my own volition about half an hour before that.
I hate sleeping in because it makes me feel lazy, so I find the earlier I wake up the better because I can still have a lie in and be up and about in an efficient manner.
At the moment I’m being very good and vigilant and doing my stretches in the morning to offset the desk job and the weight lifting, which turns out to be a lethal combo for your hips and knees.
I live in a great share house with my brother and two other friends. We are all creative people, so we will often sit around the breakfast table and have a chat and talk about whatever articles we’ve read or look at some cat videos on Instagram. I’ll have a big bro smoothie and usually go to the gym before nine.
I usually make a cup of tea and go back to my writing burrow in my bedroom. Now that teaching is finished for the year, I like to mix it up and write at the library every couple of days to stop the feeling of cabin fever.
If I have a deadline I usually try to knock that out early or in the day – or at least open the document before opening a few more tabs and wander around the internet for a while.
Fingers-on-keys is quite a small amount of the writing process – a lot of it is thinking process, especially in that criticism, personal opinion realm.
If I don’t have a deadline, then I will sometimes spend the morning wandering around and then try and knuckle down in the afternoon.
‘Fingers-on-keys is quite a small amount of the writing process – a lot of it is thinking process.’
I’ll often try and get something done by about lunchtime. The weight training has been really good, because I get really hungry and have to stop to eat a proper lunch.
Ideally I’ll work on my own projects in the afternoon, but it’s hard. I’ll have grand plans to sit down and do a script outline, but the problem with having writing as a job as well as a creative project is that often it really takes it out of me to write an article or a column. I’m trying to be gentler with myself with that, so the afternoon is usually just reading time and thinking about stuff.
I quite like thinking when I’m swimming or I love going to the supermarket to think. Some people find supermarkets really stressful, but I find them to be a very fertile thinking space – it’s a bit like swimming laps, just going up and down the aisles, zoning out a bit, listening to Coles radio.
‘I love going to the supermarket to think – it’s a bit like swimming laps, just going up and down the aisles.’
I also do a lot of thinking on a tram – I don’t drive and I’m still learning to ride a bike, so I spend a fair bit of time on trams and buses.
What I get up to in the evening depends on the day – on Tuesdays I co-host Superfluity on Triple R, so I will often go to the pub and have a cheap dinner beforehand.
Sometimes there is a film screening or an event run by Women in Film and TV or Australian Writers’ Guild. But I am a bit of a lone wolf, a bit shy, a little bit socially awkward – I don’t relish a writer’s festival, for example.
Lately I’ve been on a bit of a TV binge of Stranger Things and Mindhunter, and I also try to watch a couple of films a week.
I tend to start getting to bed around ten, but usually I’m asleep by around eleven.
Inside the Writing Process
On maintaining a flexible schedule as a freelancer…
There have been times when I have been more regimented about my time, and kept a desk calendar with designated days for different projects, but the nature of freelancing means sometimes an editor rings up with a commission, or the ABC wants me to come in and do a bit on the evening radio show or something and it just blows it all out of the water.
I was very bad at being accepting of that – I was like, but Wednesday is my day for this project and now I have ruined it and I’m never going to finish this script – but I’ve learned to make peace and just take it day by day.
On the painful process of writing…
I never trust people who say they love writing. There’s that quote, I think by Dorothy Parker – ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’
Writing is a very painful process. Often if I am starting something new, I’ll experience a depression about a week beforehand – I hate myself, I hate life, my room just becomes a mountain of clothes and Pizza Shapes boxes. My mum actually has to remind me that’s what happens before I start a new project!
‘I never trust people who say they love writing…Writing is a very painful process.’
I find the idea generation process very painful, because you are in a sense drudging it up. But once you can name it as part of the process, you can move through it at a faster rate. I’ve had depression for a long time and these days I might just have a 48-hour dip, whereas a few years ago it might have been months and months and months. I’m more okay now with recognising what it is and jumping in – it may be absolutely psychic misery, but I’d rather have it for 24 hours than lingering background noise for months and months, because that is what really erodes your work, I think.
On work serving as a life-jacket for difficult times…
Even with periods of depression, I’ve never missed a day of work. In part, that can be a bad thing – that inability to stop and say I need help – but I do think having the writing job was in a way a kind of life jacket.
I knew I had to file my column and be alive for at least half a day to write it once a week, so having a job to do was a good way of maintaining a level of normalcy.
It’s about finding that balance. Sometimes you can throw yourself so far into your work you just ignore your feelings completely, but I was lucky during that time I had just enough work to keep my head above water.
On what she wishes she’d been told earlier…
It’s really important to do things you are passionate about. I look back on the years I would watch a movie and have this strong feeling of wanting to be involved in movies. I felt sad that I had put it on the backburner for so long.
It’s hard when you freelance because you do tend prioritise the paid work and your creative stuff falls by the wayside – if a piece of work is not published or funded, it doesn’t exist. But I think it’s really important to keep some creative projects on the front burner that aren’t necessarily work.
There is this guy, George, who comes to my gym, who is 6’5’ – he’s a really imposing looking guy, but he’s an angel. I mentioned to George I had been trying to get back into my own creative work and so he bailed me up by the cable rack one morning and gave me this little motivational speech and told me how he gets up at 4.30am to fit in everything he wants to do in a day. In the end he said, mega sincere, ‘Mate, when you put your project on the backburner, you’re putting yourself on the backburner.’