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, Justin Heazlewood – songwriter, actor, humorist and author of new memoir Get Up Mum (Affirm Press) – shares his daily routine and his experience of the book writing process, from the thrill of routine to dealing with the hole in your days when you finish a big project, and his advice to writers and artists.
Many writers can trace their desire to pursue the craft to childhood. For Justin Heazlewood, the dream of writing a book first appeared when he was twelve, bubbling away until he eventually bunkered down aged 32.
‘At some point you have to sit down at a desk, start a book, and finish it,’ he says. ‘I think a lot of people procrastinate writing a book for years at a time, because there is this fear that if you actually did sit down and start to write, you will find out you can’t.’
Starting out with a songwriting segment on triple j’s Morning Show, where he was gifted the moniker The Bedroom Philosopher in 2002, Justin’s first foray into full-length book writing was Funemployed, a portrait of life in Australia for artists.
Since that book’s release in 2014, he has spent the vast majority of his time working on his latest memoir, Get Up Mum, a coming of age story about the relationship between a mother and son where mental illness gets in the middle.
‘Get Up Mum was quite a large project that required going on a deep space mission from the world, so I haven’t really been bothered with much else,’ he says. ‘I was just amazed to finish it at all really.’
Justin describes the memoir writing process as part emotional sabbatical, part science experiment, part disappearance from social media.
‘I hid in my apartment and went into a bit of a zone, turning dreams and rants and memories into workable chapters.’
During this intense period, he would regularly experiment with different routines and writing techniques, such as improvising into a recorder and transcribing the results.
All self-exploration all the time didn’t really integrate with the real world, he adds. ‘Occasionally I’d surface for air and call a friend and see a movie.’
Being immersed in one project for years at a time seems like a rare experience in the age of multi-tasking, but for Justin there’s beauty in the long game.
‘You don’t get cheat sheets in life – everything takes as long as a book. Everything takes years to figure out, years to master. I like playing the long game with my art and with myself, and sometimes you have to go off grid and off the clock and let things develop slowly.’
‘I like playing the long game with my art and with myself, and sometimes you have to go off grid and off the clock and let things develop slowly.’
A Day in the Life
I really like routine and when I was writing Get Up Mum in particular, I got into the habit of keeping school hours and working from nine to three. That’s when I did my best work.
It wasn’t all writing during those hours – there was some ‘constructive procrastination’ going on, researching things from childhood on YouTube. That’s how I would reward myself after writing a traumatic chapter.
Now the book is finished there is a sense of loss and purposelessness and postnatal calamities… it’s not that bad, but I’m weaning myself off the routine of the book. I have a pseudo-routine going where I still rock up to my desk at 9 o’clock and do some busy work, of which I always have lots to go on with, even if it is tinkering with my website.
There are also a lot of promotional activities for the book, which offers a healthy smattering of things to do.
Like any construction worker in a high-vis vest with a sausage roll and a can of V, I too would get to the end of a long day of serious soul-mining and the top of my head would be lightly throbbing – that is how you know you’ve done a solid day of writing. Your brain is a muscle and if you are really flogging it with thinking, it’s a physical thing.
‘That is how you know you’ve done a solid day of writing. Your brain is a muscle and if you are really flogging it with thinking, it’s a physical thing.’
At the end of the day I close the door on the office, and that really helps with the compartmentalising of it all. When I lived in a one-bedroom place I didn’t get to close the door on my work as much because I had my desk in the lounge, but then through a series of arts grants and a pretty successful job ripping off a casino, I was able to move up to a two-bedroom place.
Most evenings I’d just be smashing Star Trek: Voyager. With writing a childhood memoir, the last thing I could try and do is watch Game of Thrones like a normal person – I couldn’t handle any adult concepts, as it was too big a gear change. But there are 172 episodes of Voyager, so the whole series lasted me the duration of writing the book and it brought great comfort to me.
After dinner, I’ll often go for an hour-long walk. You’ve got to walk – night walks are especially great if you’re living by yourself doing something intense – it’s become a necessary winding-down exercise.
I think people seem to see walking as a great time to multitask, and just look at their phone the whole time while walking into a river. But fuck that – there are so many smells, sounds, things I haven’t thought of, or just nothing. Some people think mindfulness has to be this really complicated exercise where you sign up to some class at some clinic in Collingwood, but I’m just like, go for a walk and don’t take your phone. I dare you to see what happens.
‘Some people think mindfulness has to be this really complicated exercise…but I’m just like, go for a walk and don’t take your phone.’
My bedtime is earlier than you think – around the 9.30 or 10pm mark.
Every three days I’ll wake up at 4am in a crazy panic, but those happen less once you work out it’s just your subconscious wanting to have some quality time. So rather than fight it, I’ll get up and have a camomile, and sit in my orange velvet recliner chair and maybe write half a poem and do some staring into space.
I don’t have a nine-to-five, full-time job so I have the luxury, but I do think of people who have to get up for work and how [to me] that would be a world of stress. I really appreciate the space to be a bit flexible about when I go to bed and when I get up.
Inside the Writing Process
On letting your routine develop in your own time…
Routine is really good for creativity and it is really good for mental health. For me personally, having had very few routines in my 20s – it was just chaos central. When I found this nine-to-three working routine and created all these boundaries, there was something totally thrilling about that – very comforting, I should say.
But you don’t just decide to have a routine – most of it comes from burning out or breaking down in one way or another and realising you have to change things up. So in your 20s, you just go wild until you eventually wake up and go oww, it hurts, and find some kind of structure that suits you.
Especially when your work is really wild stuff, there is absolutely nothing boring about having a routine – it is actually exciting, and the work gets even wilder because it has a safe space to play in.
‘There is absolutely nothing boring about having a routine – it is actually exciting, and the work gets even wilder because it has a safe space to play in.’
On moving from ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’ back to Justin Heazlewood…
I felt like writing Funemployed was going to be my goodbye letter about not really enjoying being The Bedroom Philosopher, but he just won’t die.
At the same time, I think I’ve got something out of my system after 15 years. After a lot of soul-searching and therapy and whatnot, I now realise I’m an okay person and it’s important for me to be doing things under my own name at the moment.
On the business of an artist…
Our business is not in marketing a product, our business is in being in touch with the world and the human heart and our dreams and reminding people there is beauty in truth. So don’t be all fussing over who said what, and who thinks what, and how many thumbs-up your latest poem got – these are not the right questions to be asking as a creative person.
On his best advice to creatives…
Don’t try to control how your art is seen by the world or what genre you’re put in. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you have a modicum of power over how the world will perceive what you do.
People will file you away on a piece of paper in a filofax in their heads however they see fit, so that energy is best spent trying to make the best damn art you can and getting it out there and then moving on to the next thing as quick as you can.
Sometimes we might think we can read an interview like this to glean all this knowledge from a writer and implement some of their habits, but I don’t think life or emotions work like that. It’s highly personal stuff – you have all the answers to your problems, and there are very specific requirements that you need for your own art practice, or just being a person in the world coping with your emotions and stress. It’s okay not to know what the answers are, but the experimenting and the imagining and the trying to figure shit out is the important bit.