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, author and Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen sheds a little light on the ‘unending scramble’ that is his daily routine as well as his thoughts on journalism, perfectionism, and what to do when you have no idea what to do.
Every Tuesday, Erik Jensen tweets, ‘Just quietly, I’ve got a pretty good feeling about the New Yorker’s caption contest this week.’
He has never entered The New Yorker’s caption competition.
What started as a joke became both a marker of time and a caution against the ‘sloth of expectation’.
‘It’s a reminder to myself of the hopelessness of hope without effort – or the danger or delusion in feeling good about something I haven’t yet done.’
The weekly reminder clearly has an effect – there is little about Erik Jensen’s career or work as Editor of The Saturday Paper that lacks effort or drive.
‘I put in a lot of effort, but it’s effort that’s afforded to a person through privilege – it’s effort I’m able to put in because to be white and a man in Australia is very easy; there’s not a lot that I have to spend time worrying about. It is an unfair privilege.’
Be it the effort afforded by privilege or otherwise, Erik’s marked success at such a young age is often a talking point. Starting out in journalism at the age of fifteen writing for music magazines, by sixteen Erik was a critic for The Sydney Morning Herald. After finishing high school he became a news reporter and at twenty-three, Erik was named the summer editor at the Herald. Around the same time, he hatched the idea with Morry Schwartz of launching a Saturday newspaper together. The Saturday Paper was launched with Erik at the helm by the time he was twenty-five.
But as he explains, success has been rooted in an anxiety about what comes next. ‘I’m an extremely anxious person and I think not being formally educated adds to that anxiety, in the sense that I always needed to be working, so I never stopped to actually look at anything.’
There’s the all too common feeling that luck might run out at some point. ‘I’ve always thought that I needed to say yes to things because if I didn’t, things might come to a stop.’
‘I’ve always thought that I needed to say yes to things because if I didn’t, things might come to a stop.’
Erik has been editing the paper since its launch four years ago and is soon transitioning to the role of editor-in-chief to allow space for another voice to bring new ideas and life experience.
The decision also ties into his day-to-day routine with the paper. ‘It’s an unending scramble to put out the paper each week. Having someone else do some of the commissioning and rewriting will mean that, hopefully, I’ll have more time to think beyond the weekly cycle of the paper and to think more about what the paper’s focus is and where it fits in the world and what it should be doing.’
A Day in the Life
When I wake up changes depending on my mood. I go through periods of waking up early and then of really not wanting to get out of bed. When I’m writing a book I’m routinely up before 6.00am. Different energies possess you at different times.
At the moment I get up at 7.30am and have a coffee and walk to work to try to be at my desk by about 9.30am. I haven’t had breakfast since I was seventeen. I quite like the feeling of a hungry agitation; I think it’s a useful thing to work from sometimes.
On that walk I’m either thinking, playing over stories in my head or taking calls from writers to be briefed on stories.
When I was writing a book on Kate Jennings, a lot of it was written sentence by sentence in my head on my walk to work. I would scribble those down when I got to my desk and later on put them into the manuscript. That seemed like an effective way to try to find a structure for that book.
I feel as if I live inside a blur sometimes. I must spend time answering emails and commissioning and on the phone to people and rewriting copy. I must spend some time reading other news sources. I must spend time making decisions about the paper’s branding and the paper’s position and what we’re pursuing on a commercial or reader side and what we’re pursuing editorially. I often turn around and wonder what it is I’ve actually done, but the paper ends up being there at the end of the week, so presumably, I’m doing something.
‘I often turn around and wonder what it is I’ve actually done, but the paper ends up being there at the end of the week, so presumably, I’m doing something.’
For a long time, I didn’t eat lunch, but I’ve started to and I think it’s probably a necessary and useful meal – apparently the rest of the world had already formed a view on this.
I’ll duck out of the office for a sandwich or something light between 1.00pm – 3.00pm. While I’m eating lunch I’ll try to read something not related to the paper, usually on my phone.
There are lots of different meetings that go on for the paper with writers, the commercial team, partners or advertisers.
I often realise when I’m away from my desk that I’ve failed to do something, so I try to write that down somewhere or get a list of things I need to do, because I have a tendency to avoid things until they absolutely need doing.
I try to be disciplined about opening as many emails as I can, but opening an email is like opening a window to ten decisions you have to make. Sometimes you know that you can make those decisions and other times there’s a tendency to avoid that until you have time.
When I finish for the day varies. Once a week I have to be at the office until the paper goes to press, so I’ll be around until 11.00pm – 12.00am or later.
Five months ago I stopped drinking, which means I now spend a lot of time not drinking. I might cook dinner for my partner, Evelyn Morris, or go to see a band or a movie.
When it comes to writing outside of work, I try to be disciplined about knowing what I’m seeking to do. I’ve been writing less in the evening recently and pushing that across to weekends as I’m working with Maxine Beneba Clarke on a stage collaboration.
At different times I’ve had trouble sleeping, but I haven’t so much lately. I just get to a point in the day when it’s time to get sleep and then I do.
Inside the Writing Process
On fitting in side projects when full time work is demanding…
I’ve always tried to fit in other writing projects – I’ve written books and screenplays alongside my work at The Saturday Paper.
It shifts the kind of thinking I’m doing. If anything I feel more invigorated with the paper if I’m also writing on the side. I don’t know if there’s any strict logic for it, but somehow being more exhausted and doing more projects produces better outcomes for the paper than if I was just doing the paper and using my time away from it to be idle.
I am increasingly doing away with a lot of the workmanlike thinking I used to have about writing. I was, in my mind at least, resentful or mocking of people who wrote only in specific circumstances or went away to retreats to write. I thought you should be able to pull out your pad at your kitchen table and finish your book. Having written two books that way, I’m now starting to think that maybe there is some beauty in having time to think about what you’re doing.
‘I’m now starting to think that maybe there is some beauty in having time to think about what you’re doing.’
On creative drive and learning what you shouldn’t do…
I was talking to Helen Garner for a profile about the difference between jealousy and envy. Helen quoted someone as defining jealousy as the fear of losing what you have and envy being the anger about the things you don’t have.
I’ve always felt that drive of envy – I’ve felt my whole life has been about wanting to be the best at things and I think, like anyone who wants to be the best, I’m probably subconsciously or even explicitly trying to prove something. I thought for a while that I would never be content because there are so many things I want to do, and that’s not a great way to deal with anxiety.
I’m becoming more aware of things that I shouldn’t do – just because privilege affords me the capacity to start projects I want to start, doesn’t mean I should be the person to do those things.
I worked for a time under the misapprehension that there was such thing as a perfect newspaper and I thought it was my mission to make one.
I’ve come to appreciate the fact that news is, by its nature, imperfect. You will never have all of it and what you do have will never be exactly as you want it. You can try to improve pieces, but the thirty-two page miracle that is this particular newspaper has to accept that things are not going to be perfect and that’s the reality. Having come to some kind of peace with that, I’ve managed to let go a little bit.
‘Just because privilege affords me the capacity to start projects I want to start, doesn’t mean I should be the person to do those things.’
On reconnecting writing with journalism…
I encourage other writers or journalists to view the writing of their story as being as important as the getting of that story – and that’s not necessarily always the view held by a newspaper or by news journalists.
The other side of that is realising that journalism is not so tricky. It’s a few phone calls to people, being persistent, and having a willingness to check things until you know they’re true. After that, all you’re doing is finding a way to tell that story. I’m always encouraging people who are not journalists to do journalism because I think as an industry we have attempted to exclude voices by pretending what we do is really tricky.
On advice to anyone who doesn’t know what they want to do…
People are always asking for advice on writing, but I don’t know. I just encourage people to do it. Just get up and do things. That’s a grotesquely privileged answer – but I never knew what I wanted to do, I just got up one morning when I was fourteen or fifteen and decided I wanted to be a writer, so I went to a magazine and they gave me a job. My life since then has just been getting up and deciding to do new things.