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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.