Coming Full Circle with Benjamin Law
As a creative writing graduate I was slightly nervous to catch up with Benjamin Law over the phone. I’d seen his photograph on the covers of his books, his byline was all over frankie magazine and I’d seen him on television impressing his fellow panel members with his quick wit more than few times.
Law is a Sydney-based journalist, columnist and screenwriter. He is the author of The Family Law (2010), Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012) and co-author of Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014), which he wrote with his sister Michelle. Law frequently writes for the Good Weekend, frankie and The Monthly. His first book The Family Law was adapted for Australian television and broadcast in early 2016.
Reading his growing list of credentials it’s clear that Law is a freelance writer that has ‘made it’.
At some point he managed to cross that invisible line and become someone who could get away with introducing themselves as a writer at a party (as opposed to those that… just really can’t). But beyond the well deserving title I wanted to know what this means for Law in his day-to-day life. What is it like to actually be a legitimate freelance writer and how did he come to get there?
Starting where so many do
Law began a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing at QUT in 2000. The Arts “as it was then known” encompassed a range of disciplines, including Journalism, Film & TV, Media studies and Creative Writing, the latter being what he thought “sounded like [his] kind of bag”.
The three year undergraduate degree was only the beginning of Law’s student life, directly following his undergraduate degree with a year of honors and then a PhD: “I spent a lot of time at QUT, for better or for worse, I went right through”.
Law’s PhD titled, “The New Lows: Representing Asian-Australians on Television” consisted of a screenplay and an exegesis. This seems very appropriate considering he is currently working on adapting his first book The Family Law, which is based on his own eccentric family, into a six part series.
Law has been involved in the show from the beginning, having written four episodes and contributed to the other two. Reflecting on his career path in screenwriting, he says, “It is something I wouldn’t have been able to do or wouldn’t have had the confidence to do if I hadn’t done that screen writing training at QUT for my PhD”.
In particular, the PhD, the “long, painful, bastard of a process”, gave Law discipline and confidence – arguably two of the most vital skills for any writer. Both of these attributes are crucial in becoming a successful writer, many of whom work across a diverse range of platforms.
Writing across platforms
In today’s society many writers struggle to take advantage of technology and there is a fear that you can become lost amongst the crowd of writers currently trying to make it on digital platforms. With the saturation of information we now experience, with new technologies constantly competing for our attention, how can writers be heard? How can they stay relevant?
One way is to exist as a writer that is relevant to a number of different audiences, which is something that Law has achieved.
Law believes an important ability for the modern writer is to develop a diverse skill set because you’re never going to be guaranteed work as a freelance writer.
It’s not only fear that drives Law’s wide range of writing works but also boredom: “it’s really great; you’re constantly changing your gears. There’s definitely that imperative to diversify so that you won’t die but there is also another thing in that I just want to do it”.
An obstacle of juggling different writing projects is that they each require different programs but perhaps the greatest difficulty involved with ‘constantly changing gears’ is time management.
With the Internet being a primary source of distraction Law uses the program Freedom, which deactivates the Internet forcibly for allotted time periods. But the problem doesn’t end there…
“Of course if I’m using [Freedom] then I get really distracted by my phone so I’ve got a similar program called forest. It’s sort of cute but sort of lame and you activate it for say 90 minutes and you plant a seed and basically if you check your phone for anything outside of the program within the period of time that you’ve set up, the trees that you’ve planted die… you can end up with a lot of dead trees in your forest. It’s so stupid you know, I’m a grown adult and I’m basically using the time management equipment of a Tamagotchi, but it works.”
Looking at Law’s twitter account, it is clear that he does enjoy maintaining a strong presence on social media, despite it not being “a good indication of [his] productivity”.
Being a freelance writer that works from home, he explains, “I don’t have physical colleagues around me to talk to and so twitter especially is a rough sort of simulation of having real friends and having real colleagues during the day whom I can actually exchange ideas with.”
Being relevant to stand out
If you’ve read any of Law’s writing you will know that he is “attracted to stories that have a bit of complexity, that challenge your assumptions”. In particular he is known for writing about minorities, whether they are marginalised peoples, racially or sexually diverse. For example, he tends to write frequently about non-white people but he justifies, “that might just be because I’m non-white, it’s what I know.”
Writing what you know is a commonly understood writing technique and obviously Law does practice this, his first novel and many of his works having been inspired by his family members. I asked him whether this ever caused tension with them, to which he says:
“Not so much… my family sets boundaries that are pretty loose, which is probably evidenced by how I write about them. So they’ve been really great and supportive the whole time and when they do have reservations they tell me and then we’re happy to work through them. Usually they pick up on stuff like spelling and grammar errors rather than anything they have personal issues with.”
It is also his family and friends who he goes to for advice on writing. This is an important aspect of the writing process because it is a solitary practice and “once you spend a lot of time with something you’re not really sure whether it’s good or not anymore”.
“What I’ve found is that I go to different people for different things. So if I’m writing non-fiction or anything that resembles journalism I go to my friend Anna Krien, I trust and respect her work and judgments so much. She’ll often read things that I need an opinion on.”
“My boyfriend is a radio producer for the ABC and he comes from a journalism background himself. Radio is such an immediate medium, he’s got a really great hunch for the heart of a story and if he thinks there’s anything missing he’ll pick up on it.”
Right now Law has his hands full writing the television show, which, he has realised is, despite the smaller word count, much like writing a book. Fans will be pleased to know that after the shooting of The Family Law wraps up in May, Law will be focusing on his next project, most likely a book, he’s just not sure what it will be yet.
Law is an established Australian writer who started where so many do – studying an undergraduate Bachelor of Arts. I’m sure he experienced many of the familiar eyebrow raises after answering the dreaded question – ‘what are you studying?’ It is a look that clearly says ‘yeah right’ or ‘good luck’ because people know that success in this field is difficult.
So if you want to be a writer what better person to take some words of wisdom from, these are Law’s three pieces of advice:
“One is to read a lot because if you’re not reading a lot you’re never going to write well. Writing is an education and you need to be educated through reading.”
“Secondly, if you want to make a career out of writing then learn how money works because if you’re freelancing you’re essentially starting your own small business. So get a good accountant as boring as that sounds and learn how the tax system works.”
“I guess the third thing is find your tribe. Writing is a fairly solitary activity and you need to surround yourself with people who understand the challenges that you face and will be your champions and your confidantes.”