Creativity is such a mysterious thing: how you find it, keep it, and forge a career with it is something I'm still working on. When it comes to killer storytelling, veteran journalist and editor Di Webster is one of the very best in that creative biz, and she has the awards to prove it (that would be Joint winner, Best Reporting -- Australian Society of Magazine Editors 1997, and Finalist, Journalist of the Year -- Publishers Australia Excellence Awards 2014.) Not only is she a kick-ass writer, she's a hugely generous person to work with; I learned so much at marie claire Australia just by watching her do her thing, and she always took the time to talk me through features I was working on (personal disasters, too!). She's also bloody hilarious, whip smart and just an all-round adorable human being. She agreed to talk about writing anxiety, when she feels her most creative and the joy of expandable pants, for the first installment in this series on making creativity work.
Give us the run down - how did you get into writing in the first place? And where did you go from there?
I had taken a job as personal assistant in the South Pacific bureau of TIME magazine, which, despite the coconut-palm imagery that evokes, was in chilly Melbourne. Under the Time Inc. umbrella at that time was a stable of magazines including Life, People magazine, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Discover. It was a tiny office, just the correspondent — a wonderfully generous man called John Dunn — and me. One day, about three weeks into the job, one of those publications asked John to contribute to a story they were preparing. John handed me the request.
“Why don’t you do this one?” he said.
“Because I’m the typist.”
“I think you can do it,” he said. “Have a go. I’ll tidy it up.”
So began my writing career. From memory, my first byline — a tagline, actually —was in TIME.
About three years later, I briefly moved to the newly-launched Time Australia, before joining a Melbourne television current affairs program as a researcher. That was followed by five years in South East Asia, where I reported for newspapers and magazines (including The Age, The Sunday Age in Melbourne and People magazine in the US), and contributed to radio programs in Australia, Canada and Germany.
Back in Australia in 1994, I worked as a producer on a television variety show then joined the recently launched WHO magazine (People magazine’s Australian sister) first as a staff writer, then senior editor.
In 2010, after a few years freelancing, I took a position at marie claire Australia where I ultimately became editor at large.
How did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
I didn’t! As a child, I was intensely curious about the world, and lived for the arrival of the newspaper each day, but formal education bored me. Nobody in my working-class family had ever been to university, and I had no interest in breaking the mould—or any belief that I could. At 15, I left school and enrolled at a secretarial college.
After series of admin jobs, including at the HQ of a political party, a friend mentioned that the editorial manager of Melbourne’s morning broadsheet, The Age, was looking for an assistant. As I sat in the newsroom waiting to be interviewed, I had an extraordinary, unmistakable epiphany. There was no question, this was home. I had to get this job. The course of my life changed in that moment — and I hadn’t even had the interview!
And did you feel discouraged/apprehensive that you were trying to go about it in a non-traditional way? Who were your biggest supporters? And did you have any doubters?
Though I adored the vibe of the newsroom and hanging out with journalists, it honestly never occurred to me that I could be one. So, really, I wasn’t trying to ‘go about’ anything!
I had been at The Age for about three years when the Time job came up. John Dunn and I hit it off instantly. Though his body of work was extraordinary, he de-mystified the craft for me, if that makes sense, and encouraged me to write at every opportunity. (At 83, he is still a working journalist, and one of my dearest friends).
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently at the start of your career?
Not really. I was satisfied just working in that environment, but I always believed in getting on every new bus that pulled up.
You’ve just jumped back into freelancing after a number of years on staff at marie claire. How do you feel being on-staff and freelance are different, and have those differences affected your writing?
How are they different? Financial security rings a bell! But I never found an office environment — especially open plan — conducive to creativity. There’s the lack of privacy when doing interviews (not to mention fighting with your husband), interruptions for meetings, background chatter, and PR stunts featuring Village People impersonators while you’re trying to wrestle a 2,000-word story to the ground.
That said, freelancing requires extraordinary discipline. Who hasn’t vacuumed the house or polished the toaster rather than begin a feature? I know freelancers who get up each day and dress for work, hit the home office desk at nine and leave it at 5. I am not one of these people, but I believe you need to impose some structure on your day. Still working on that one.
I can’t say my writing is different outside of an office environment, but my stress levels definitely are — and that’s worth the drop in dollars.
Let’s talk about anxiety and writing. You’re an award-winning, respected, veteran journalist, but you told me you get crippling anxiety at times. Can you talk a little about that? What are you afraid of? And have you found any strategies to kill the anxiety and keep writing?
So many questions; so little therapy! Sometimes, the anxiety begins the minute I am commissioned to write a story. Putting my amateur psychologist’s hat on, I suspect part of me thinks I’m still the Time Inc. typist! That will seem disingenuous to anybody who has worked with me because once I take on a writing job, I guard my words with the ferocity of a tiger mum. I’m a perfectionist, and the idea of knocking out a long-form feature that isn’t totally accurate, or doesn’t have the right rhythm and pace, is anathema to me. I put so much pressure on myself, there’s a real temptation to not write at all. It is a series of exquisite tortures.
Is writer’s block real for you?
Definitely, but mainly it’s confined to those all-important opening pars. Once I have those nailed, I tend to find a rhythm and, believe it or not, sometimes enjoy the process.
What do you think is the hardest part of writing?
The blinking cursor on a blank page is the obvious one, but on a personal level, my inability to sacrifice quality for speed. There is so much to read and so many sources delivering it these days, a well-crafted sentence feels indulgent, anachronistic—and increasingly unnecessary. But I keep trying to produce one. Dumb.
Why do you still do it?
I love words.
What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve ever been given?
Get everything down on paper, then knock it into shape. I have never followed this excellent advice. My technique is to sweat over an opener, get it right, then build.
In terms of journalism more generally, when I was starting out and nervous about picking up the phone to do an interview, my then boss said, “When you say, ‘Hello, this is Di Webster from Time Magazine,’ the person you’ve called is going to be a hell of a lot more nervous than you.’”
The best piece of writing advice I could give, on the other hand, is something I learned as a reader. When the actor Paul Newman died, I read an obit that referred to his extraordinary blue eyes. The story didn’t say his peepers had the vivid hue of the Indian Ocean on a summer morning. They were, the writer said, “the colour of Windex.” It was clear, it was unpretentious and nobody who’s ever cleaned a window could be in any doubt what Paul Newman’s eyes looked like.
You were known at marie claire for your ability to make Editor-in-Chief Jackie Frank cry over stories. How do you get that emotion into a piece?
That’s so hard to answer. As a commissioning editor, I would often tell writers that it wasn’t enough to describe the size, colour or condition of a particular environment, I wanted to be there; I wanted to smell it. And often, it’s small details that take you there, not big ones. A baby’s tiny foot might pack more emotional punch than its smile, a crumpled Coke can rattling down a pot-holed road might drop you into a down-at-heel town more effectively than a reference to “rubbish-strewn streets”. To get a genuine emotional response to a story you can’t deliver it from the sidelines; you need to feel it. The journey has to begin at the first paragraph and it needs to be subtle, not manipulative.
How do you know when a story is working - or when it isn’t?
If three hours have passed without looking at Twitter, it’s working. If you’re absorbed, chances are the reader will be too.
Which professional project has given you the most satisfaction and happiness?
That’s tough! In fact, I’m going to separate them. In terms of happiness, I used to do a regular Q&A in Who magazine with visiting Hollywood celebs. I had the freedom to be quite irreverent and, when they got the joke and went along with it — as the pros usually did — it was a blast. When they didn’t, not so much.
The most personally satisfying project was a feature I did for marie claire last year on young women who had survived suicide attempts. Having emerged from terrible darkness, all had gone on to live happy, fulfilling lives. The piece got an incredibly positive reaction, not only from readers, but also from mental health groups.
What would you do in your career if you knew you wouldn’t fail?
Probably talkback radio.
When do you feel your most creative?
At about four in the morning, annoyingly.
What’s your biggest distraction?
The internet, especially Twitter. No question.
What do you do when you feel like you’re in a bit of a rut?
In terms of a particular story? Sleep. It’s amazing how often you wake up with the solution.
More generally, get out of the house, walk the dog, or see friends. Drink wine.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve felt like a fraud? If so, can you tell us a bit about that, and how you got over it?
Most of the time (see above). Thirty years on, I think every story is the one where I’m going to be found out.
What does a typical work day look like for you? How many hours a day do you spend working?
Since I left marie claire in August, I have also been overseeing renovations to our home, so there have been few “typical” days. When I am writing, I will rise early, take the dog and a coffee to an off-leash park, maybe drive my husband to work and sit down at the desk at about 10am. I guess I would put in an eight-hour day, but rarely in one chunk.
Paper and pen or apps and smartphones?
All of the above, but ultimately I need hard copies of everything. Nothing I read online sinks in.
What’s the best piece of advice on getting shit done you’ve ever been given?
Just do it or just say no.
What’s the one pleasure or habit, no matter how busy you are with work, you won’t give up?
Mornings at the dog park with a latte.
Have you found any productivity strategies that work for you?
When you need a break from work, what do you do?
Go to the gym, or meet friends for lunch.
What are the best and worst parts about being a “creative”?
I absolutely love telling stories, but I don’t always love the process. Sometimes I think I’d like to run a café, or work in a shop, where you shut the door at the end of the day and don’t think about it again til next morning. That’s just not an option for the creative.
I have met some extraordinary people and heard happy, sad, inspirational, bizarre, life-changing stories—and, like the gossip I am, I got to pass them on and get paid. There’s a lot to love about that.
What do you wear when you’re working and no one else is around?
Expandable pants, with seasonal variations in fabric.
What’s your number one piece of advice for someone wanting to take the leap into a creative career?
Care about what you’re doing. As an editor, I am astonished at the number of ‘writers’ who bash out an utterly mediocre piece and accept wholesale changes to it without a whimper. If you don’t care about your words enough to go into battle for them, you are phoning it in.
While good feature writing requires flair and a love of the language, good reporters all have one attribute they didn’t pick up at uni: natural curiosity. If you’re not curious, you’re in the wrong job.
Thank you Di - you're the best!