I was recently interviewed by Martyn Pepperell for Junkee, about living life the freelance way. Read Digital nomads: How to do life your way — Q&A version below.
You’re a journalist, editor and copywriter with an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. You’re also a research assistant on a project run jointly by the Sheffield Institute for International Development (the University of Sheffield) and the Global Development Institute (the University of Manchester). How would you define the work you do in these different roles? Do they interlink?
I think so. We’re in a time where being a full time journalist, and being able to live off that is a rare and beautiful thing. But the notion still exists that you need to be purist and not muddle your journalistic calling by working in other roles, like comms or PR. I agree with that in principle, but in reality it’s unpractical for most. Most freelancers need to juggle different kinds of work, or end up doing so, and I don’t think that’s all bad.
I’ve tended to work in hospitality when I’ve needed a financial buffer, to avoid conflicts over what commercial work I feel comfortable doing or not doing. I don’t think it’s fair to take a PR job, then get diva about whether you will or won’t work on certain clients.
For me it’s more about the fact I don’t like the emotive, instructive nature of a lot of messaging — working with words means you can find yourself in a position where you’re pressuring people to do or consume something (buy this now! / everyone’s watching this video but you, shame!), and I really don’t like to do that.
Anyway, being able to work part time in academia has sort of solved that for me. It keeps my brain ticking, the work I’ve been doing is in line with what I studied and care about, and it keeps me from being pulled too deep into the media bubble. It also suits my pace, or allows me to maintain a slower one as a journalist, which is important to me. If I’m going to add words to the world I like to know I’ve thought about them properly, regardless of whether or not they’re particularly profound.
I know this is hard to summarise, but what was your entry point into doing these kinds of jobs and how did your professional development within them unfold? I’m guessing the one led to another? For example, I started with journalism and then picked up copywriting on the side for extra income.
My early background is in entertainment and lifestyle writing, and a lot of that work came through personal networks — right place right time, and people giving me a shot. I got lucky with one of my first jobs out of university. Was basically given a lot of freedom to source and create my own content for a music zine-style website, and had to learn all the aspects of processing that content and putting it online. The internet was pretty different then, but I learnt a lot.
From there I spent a lot of time between NZ and the US, and as a result got to do a lot of in-person interviews for magazines that I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten to do in New Zealand. After about seven or eight years of that, the ‘but it’s a cool experience!’ factor was pretty well-worn. I was getting too grumpy about the tiny paycheques — that sometimes never arrived — and was feeling drawn to learn more, and write about, social justice issues, so I moved back to New Zealand and started postgraduate study in international development.
I thought that was it for me and working in media, but I came back around to feeling that I want to keep working as a journalist. It’s been intimidating and difficult at times, attempting to take on bigger topics than I’m used to, but I’m feeling more confident about my base knowledge and ability to do so.
For as long as I’ve known you, or known about you, you’ve been back and forth around the world. When did your work and education path start allowing you to live and work overseas and move around? How have things evolved and developed on that front since then?
I’ve always waitressed and done other jobs to sustain the writing. I lived in the US on and off for a long period, and the low-paid music mag stories didn’t translate so well to the US dollar. My dad paid my way while I studied Poverty & Development at the University of Manchester, which has been the cushiest time of my professional life, despite the — for me, very uncomfortable — irony of that situation.
I tend to go places without preparing, but thinking I’ll be ok, and then wonder why I find things hard on the other side. It’s because moving is hard! Doing that has meant I’ve experienced a lot of cool stuff, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the ‘she’ll be right’ approach. Things have always worked out, but the road has been rocky at times. My point is: don’t take me as an example! It’s good to plan! Then again, if you wait for the exactly perfect time to make the leap, you might never do it.
How do you approach working on the move? What are the systems you put in place to get things done while you’re travelling? Do you end up using rentable work stations or hot desks? If you know you have to work while travelling, how much do you plan in advance and how much do you work out on the fly?
I remember subbing stuff for Rip it Up from the nappy change table in an airport bathroom — I needed power and for some reason it was next to the only socket I could find! I’ve tried using co-working spaces, but I find that sitting in a café for an hour or so can give me the break I need from sitting at home talking to myself.
It can be stressful not having a fixed space, particularly if you have a deadline and can’t find internet, but these days that’s less of an issue. The upside is that I’ve gotten to work in some pretty random, cool spots. Airport bathrooms aside.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt from working in multiple freelance disciplines while moving around the world? Is there anything you wish someone had told you earlier on in the piece? What would you have avoided if you could have, and what would you have pursued more if possible?
I’ve been a bit of a floater — it’s not what I meant to do, but it is what I’ve done. I don’t want to say you shouldn’t travel or take risks, because I think that as a writer — and as a human — it’s important to exit your comfort zone frequently, to remind yourself you’re a little fish in a big pond. I think this helps lend perspective and empathy to a person’s writing.
But in a work sense, it’s probably a lot smarter to develop strong relationships with multiple clients, or build up your income in another way, before taking the leap. That’s not something I’ve been particularly smart about. I don’t regret my path, because it’s been interesting all the same, but I feel really tired quite a lot.
Doing this sort of stuff requires a lot of personal belief and discipline. How do you keep yourself inspired, and deal with low energy periods and time management? What helps you keep doing it?
Honestly, I don’t know! Sometimes the jaw drops that I go from literally peeling my ego off the floor to finding energy and interest to keep doing life how I do. I mean, it’s the good times that keep me doing it. And curiosity. That mostly applies to moving around — I’ve relocated for short periods of time fairly frequently, and each time it’s the lure of the new experience that gets me there. But it’s still hard to uproot, and re-route.
I also really like my friends, and I don’t get to spend as much time with them as I’d like. That said, I shouldn’t complain as we’re all fairly mobile and paths cross a lot more frequently than you’d expect. In terms of discipline to actually do my work, I typically don’t have a problem motivating myself. I’m in the habit of burning the candle at both ends, and even if I’m travelling I’m always working at the same time. I enjoy my work, that helps. Travelling recharges me too if I’m feeling flat.
Could you give us the rundown on Impolitikal and what you’ve been doing with Don’t dream it’s over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand? Any other current projects I’ve missed that we should talk about?
It was great to be involved with Don’t dream it’s over. Like I say, I’ve always been a bit tentative about my place in the industry, but doing the book once again reinforced my belief in the importance of a healthy, constructive media. I think it’s an exciting time for journalism in New Zealand.
That’s the same sort of reason I started Impolitikal — I felt there was a need for more spaces for conversation around political and social issues, that engage with groups and voices that are typically underrepresented. We’ve got a long way to go in terms of doing that well, but if I’m going to work as a journalist that’s the kind of work I want to do.