Working with Words: Ronnie Scott
Former The Lifted Brow editor Ronnie Scott is also contributor to The Believer, Lucky Peach, Meanjin, the Big Issue, Australian Book Review and ABC Radio. He is currently a Hot Desk Fellow here at the Wheeler Centre – so we hunted him down at his desk and invited him to be our guest for this week’s Working with Words.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Like so many people, my first published thing was in Voiceworks, back when Tom Doig was running the magazine. It was a story called ‘WE ARE GOING TO HAVE SEX TOGETHER!!!’ and I can’t tell you anything else about it because I have nice memories of the story and I’m not sure I want to look at it again.
What I do remember is that Tom wanted me to lodge a funny bio and I had no idea how to handle that, so I said ‘what if you just changed my author name to Ronnie Scotch? Have a drink on me - on Ronnie Scotch.’ Tom did not reply for a couple of days and then told me, ‘Just a regular bio will be totally fine.’
What’s the worst part of your job?
Because I’m a writer/teacher/editor, the work is really bitty, and it can get tough to find long stretches of time to work on projects in a sustained way.
I was talking to another editor last week about the secret habits of busy people, about how there are no special secrets, only labour and luck. But between you and me, the things that are blowing my mind at the moment are all these dumb, embarrassingly self-helpy management tricks: when you click on an email, always answer it right then and there! A one-click policy. Or, don’t answer it - just archive that sucker and move on! If it sits in your inbox for a week, does it really need replying? Were you going to say something especially amazing - because seriously, what are you, the president?
So I have turned into a person who uses Inbox Zero as a verb, which isn’t very gangsta, but it does create more time.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
The first time I had an editor who really went to town on me.
I used to envy my friends who were working with book editors because they got heavy structural overhauls before the copy editing even began; writing for magazines, editors often just monkey with your sentences, rather than focusing the whole piece towards a specific result.
Once, though, I had this editor who sent back a draft with a quick note of apology - I think she called it a ‘Frankenedit’ because it was the best she could do at the time. But what she’d done was rip apart the piece and paste it back together, leaving all the connective work to me. Suddenly, there was the possibility of logic in this essay that I’d known was there but hadn’t any idea how to access. Honestly I almost cried.
Editors often don’t have time to do stuff like this, and it makes sense to focus on producing clean copy when the deadlines are tight. But a good, deep, no-bullshit edit is something that stays with you; when I’m struggling with an essay now, I always try to ask myself what this editor would do. It’s also changed how I approach other people’s writing; I was a much worse editor before that, with very different priorities.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I’m sure no one thinks that writing is a very clever way to make money, cure insecurity, or wrangle sexy babes. So of all the possible things to love about the industry, you should probably make sure you’re really passionate about at least two or three - do you care about mood, language, structure, character? Doesn’t really matter - work on the other stuff, but figure out the thing that truly interests you and zero in on that. Make the work fun for yourself if you can.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
There was one issue of the Brow that I decided to design myself, perhaps because I wasn’t criticised often enough as a child and thought I had very interesting revolutionary concepts, like ‘Let’s just not have any gutters! This will change the freaking world.’ I think ThreeThousand told me outright in an interview that the issue looked like a piece of trash.
But if I had any kind of brain for it, I’d love to retrain in design or maybe even programming. I liked staying up late and drinking Red Bull and moving things around with my cursor, and writing isn’t super-duper conducive to that. What I’m trying to say is that I want to be a brogrammer, but probably less The Matrix and more, I don’t know, The Net. Sandra Bullock is my original bro.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Creative writing can be taught, but the programs often aren’t set up as well as they could be, just because of the dictates of being part of a larger school.
I can create a strong workshopping environment, provide exercises, tell people the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, and talk about paths to publication. But there’s only so much further I can go unless my students are clocking a pretty significant word count every day, or hour count, or whatever - just building up a regular practice.
You get better at writing by reading writing, and thinking about writing, and talking about writing, and revising writing, but only in conjunction with writing itself. My feeling is this would be pretty simple to implement: I fantasise about having a pass/fail requirement where I mark one story, as usual, but have to see shitty drafts of eleven others as well. Not marked and not scrutinised - just some way of knowing that the student has really been playing around and figuring stuff out. But if I tried to enforce this there’d be some kind of protest and I would die on the street, unemployed and hungry and uninsured.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both! My favourite thing to do is buy books straight from tiny publishers, probably because I’ve managed the invoices at the Brow for six years now and I know how much direct sales help. But I’d be really sad if my local bookshop ever closed - Brunswick Bound on Sydney Road, run by a couple, crazy-nice. They can’t always be counted on to stock the one thing I’m looking for, but what I end up buying is often a cool surprise.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
This will sound insane, but about 24 hours ago I was lying around drinking coffee and I found this secret cache of local strangers on Instagram who seem to do nothing with their lives apart from hang out with each other, take hot photos of each other, like said photos of each other, and make interesting comments about each other’s hair.
I probably wouldn’t want to go out to dinner with them, because there are only so many things you can say about other people’s faces when you have barely met. But maybe I wouldn’t mind running into them on the street sometime? Just so I can tell them to keep doing what they’re doing, really going out there and living it up. They have been a small but memorable part of my life’s journey and I feel happy knowing they are there.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
We can do this one of two ways. I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at sort of the perfect age to get completely demolished and rebuilt by it and fall in love. I can’t think of anyone else beyond people I’ve KNOWN-known who has so shaped - not my abilities, but my aspirations. I love how Wallace toggles between critical thinking and heart, going deep into topics but not at the expense of breadth.
The other day, though, I was listening to an Alanis Morissette song called ‘Narcissus’ and the number of therapeutic concepts in that song just drove me nuts: she rhymes ‘seeing both sides of every equation’ with ‘having an uninterrupted conversation’, FFS!
I’m working on an essay called ‘Relative Jams’ about how most of her music is about managing - without obliterating - contradictory feelings, and how that doesn’t gel very well with making good pop music even though it’s a very admirable idea. Again: she shaped my aspirations. She’s also just had a baby, and when defending her ‘attachment parenting’ style, she said: ‘What part of it is gross? … Is it you think boundaries need to be walls?’ Hero worship.
In terms of their art, she and DFW aren’t all that similar, but as thinker-feelers, they’re actually kind of close.