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A Day In The Life Of Benjamin Law, Writer

A Day In The Life

Sydney-based Benjamin Law is one of Australia’s most-loved young writers. Over the past decade, Ben has created groundbreaking work based on his identity as a gay man from an Asian background, and has changed the way we talk about these things (separately, and together) in Australia.

Working across journalism, broadcasting, and film and television, it’s safe to say that Ben has got the freelancer thing down pat. Ahead of the first episode of his new two-part documentary series, Waltzing the Dragon With Benjamin Law, Ben shares some of his top tips, apps, and advice for how he pieces together a stable schedule while constantly changing gears!

26th July, 2019

One of the first thing’s Benjamin Law does every day is clear out his inbox before 9am. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Bits and bobs from Ben’s house. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

You’re allowed to say “no” and you don’t have to give a reason. Simply say you’re unavailable and unable. This is a much better alternative to saying “yes” just to get someone off your back, and making your future self furious at you,’ says Ben. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Spending a lot of writing time alone, Ben tries to leave the house at lunchtime. Here he is at Boon Cafe in Haymarket. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Usually Ben eats his breakfast with green tea, or sometimes a Virgin Mary – hot and spicy V8 juice with squeezed lemon. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ben exercises after 5pm most days, either swimming or yoga. He loves swimming at The Prince Alfred Pool in Surry Hills. Ben at Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

The first person in Speedos on TDF! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Sally Tabart
Friday 26th July 2019

‘Basically, my work is kind of like triage all day, and then I try to ensure the bleeding stops by 5pm.’ – Benjamin Law.

Writing about a writer is one of the most daunting tasks for… a writer. I’m always worried about doing something sloppy, like repeating the same word three times in one sentence (see: previous sentence). It’s especially nerve-wracking when the subject is as prolific as Benjamin Law, one of the defining voices in Australian culture over the past 10 years.

Ben grew up on the Sunshine Coast, to Cantonese parents who migrated to Australia via Southern China (Ben’s Dad) and Malaysia (Ben’s Mum), via Hong Kong. Based in Sydney, Ben describes himself now as pretty much the same as when he was a kid: ‘obsessed with sex, annoyingly attention-hogging, insatiably curious but could be immediately reduced to silence if you put a good book, movie, TV show or magazine in front of me.’ Only these days, he’s the one writing the material.

In 2010 Ben published the hilarious, poignant memoir, The Family Law, and then in 2012 a travel book exploring the queer experience in Asia, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East. Both were nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards, and the former was later adapted into a groundbreaking TV series on SBS. He’s written more books, countless features and worked on film and television projects. He’s also working on a play – because clearly, he doesn’t have enough going on right now!

Next week, Ben’s latest endeavor – a documentary called Waltzing the Dragon – will premiere on ABC, where Ben travels with his parents from remote Northern Australia to Chinese megacities to explore the overlap in cultures. ‘On one level, it’s a history of the Chinese in Australia – and an Asian-Australian history that pre-dates the First Fleet and white arrival on this continent – but it’s also a massive road-trip with my Mum and Dad to find our own roots,’  Ben explains. ‘Some of the stuff we unearth will completely up-end your understanding not just of Chinese-Australian history, but Australian history in general.’

No two days are ever the same for Ben. ‘I don’t really have anything resembling structure nowadays’, he admits. In lieu of regular programming, he has a ‘some habits and ground rules’ to keep it all together – showering first thing, clearing out his inbox before 9am (‘it’s like a healthy little mind audit before the workday starts’), exercising and at the end of the day, truly switching off and decompressing with his boyfriend.

Ben is a wealth of wisdom when it comes to carving out space for himself in the midst of a sometimes chaotic, always random routine. From scheduling his iCal ‘down to the minute’ to stopping all things digital by 10pm, Ben shares how he gets it all done.

FIRST THING

I like the idea of getting up by 6.30am because I enjoy the feeling of having a headstart on everyone else, but it’s usually 7.30am. I like reading before bed and I usually do that until midnight, and I need exactly 7.5 hours sleep. It’s like my body’s finally said, ‘It’s non-negotiable.’ I’m also a super-deep sleeper. Waking up is like trying to exhume something dead from an oceanic trench. But for the last few years, I’ve used an amazing app called Sleep Cycle, which both monitors your sleep and ensures you wake up at a point in your sleep where it’s not jarring and horrible. I love it so much.

My boyfriend is usually up before me and he’s usually watching ABC News Breakfast while reading the news; I tend to prefer having ABC RN Breakfast on the radio with Fran Kelly or Hamish MacDonald.

I do a poo, have a shower then clear my inbox. Sorry: is that too graphic? Basically, it’s a lot of purging and cleansing from when I wake up until 9am.

MORNING

Breakfast often makes me gag, so it’s usually something light, like miso soup and fruit, or toast with butter and vegemite, and crunchy peanut butter with honey. And it’s usually with green tea, or sometimes a Virgin Mary – hot and spicy V8 juice with squeezed lemon.

Then I work: whether that’s doing interviews for Good Weekend, prepping Stop Everything – the ABC RN pop culture show I co-host with Beverley Wang– or just writing for a deadline or project.

If I’m about to launch into writing that requires proper focus, I forcibly disable the internet by activating Freedom on my laptop and Forest on my phone.

LUNCHTIME

On writing days, it’s common that I won’t even leave the house or have any human contact until 5pm – and perhaps a bit disgustingly, I don’t actually mind that at all. But sometimes I’ll pop down to Spice Alley – which is super close to where we live – for a cheap and cheery lunch.

AFTERNOON

It’s usually just writing, meetings and admin all arvo – a big happy horrible mess. My iCal is colour-coded within an inch of its life for this reason. Basically, my work is kind of like triage all day, and then I try to ensure the bleeding stops by 5pm.

EVENING

I try to finish by 5pm. It’s tempting for freelancers to keep working, but unless I’ve got a deadline in the next hour, I tell myself to stop. Because there’s always more work that could be done. It’s really important to me to sound boundaries nowadays.

After 5pm, I try to take a break – check the mail, do some housework, laundry, clean the kitchen, meal prep for dinner – then either swim laps, go to the gym or do some yoga with this great app called Pocket Yoga, which I prefer to classes.

I then make dinner, catch up with my boyfriend Scott, decompress, watch the news and Leigh Sales on 7.30, then it’s whatever we’re watching. Some of the stuff we’ve loved this year have included Pose, Stranger Things, Fleabag, Catastrophe and Game of Thrones. And RuPaul’s Drag Race, obviously.

LAST THING

Work-wise, I always give my inbox a little late-night purge again, if possible. Then I go into iCal and I plan the next day right down to the last minute, including breaks, exercise and social stuff with mates. If I have to be my own boss, I figure I can ride my own arse. And there’s no white space in the iCal, because if there is, I know my instinct is to fill it with work. So I trick myself by scheduling my breaks.

Over the last year or so, I’ve kept to a new habit: around 10pm, I set my phone’s alarm clock (via Sleep Cycle), switch on the Do Not Disturb mode and have it lying face down. Then I have a shower – as if to wash off the day and my digital reliance – and come into bed to read a book. Sometimes it’ll be The New Yorker, but it has to be on paper. I’ve gotten my boyfriend into the habit too, and I think it’s actually my favourite part of the day: feet tangled under the doona, each of us immersed in something.

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Ben working from his standup desk at home. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Right now I’m listening to/watching/reading…

Music: Mark Ronson’s Late Night Feelings; Gabriel Kahane’s Book of Travelers; and new tracks Washington (Megan Washinton, who’s a mate of mine) has been working on.

Podcasts: Internationally: Fresh Air, Still Processing, Nancy, Touré Show, New Yorker Radio Hour.
Australian: The Signal, Background Briefing, Conversations, Ladies, We Need to Talk.

Reading: A combo of Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics, Deray McKesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The last few books I’ve really devoured have been Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Max Porter’s Lanny.

One important thing I do every day is…
Move my body.  And decompress with my boyfriend.

I get my best work done when…
I’m able to give it the time it warrants. It’s better to allocate the right amount of time something needs – and breathing room in case it goes wrong – rather than constantly being a deluded time-optimist.

A philosophy I live and work by is…
When deciding on projects, Laurie Anderson says it needs to fulfill two of the following three criteria: it has to be fun, it has to be interesting and it has to make money. It can’t just tick one box: only two or more. Similarly, I need projects to be fun, challenging, make money and I need to have the time.

My productivity tip/tool is…

If you need time away from the internet, install Freedom onto your computer and Forest on your phone. Forest is an app that’s like a Tamagotchi: you plant a virtual cartoon seed for a set time. If you check another app in that time, your plant dies and you have a dead forest. It’s a surprisingly emotional experience!

Another big breakthrough I had is with transcribing interviews. Traditionally it took me about 120 minutes to transcribe a 30-minute conversation. It’s so painful. And all the voice transcription software I’d ever tried over the past decade has been shit. But my boyfriend and some mates put me onto Otter recently and it’s been life-changing. I almost get emotional about it.

Finally: all huge tasks are like bricklaying. You’ve got to break down big goals. Don’t just have ‘write book’ or ‘write play’ as your daily task, otherwise, you’ll intimidate and scare the shit out of yourself. Break it into monthly goals (eg. finish chapter), and break those into weekly goals (eg. complete key interviews) and break those into daily (eg. 750-1000 words) then hourly goals (125 words per hour doesn’t seem that intimidating, suddenly). It also means you have closure on the day and feel like you can reward yourself.

Something I learned the hard way is…
You’re allowed to say ‘no’ and you don’t have to give a reason. Simply say you’re unavailable and unable. This is a much better alternative to saying ‘yes’ just to get someone off your back, and making your future self furious at you.

Tune into the first episode of  Waltzing The Dragon With Benjamin Law this Tuesday, July 30th at 8.30pm on ABC, or catch it later on ABC iView!

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