Working with Words: Ben Jenkins
We spoke with writer and producer Ben Jenkins about typing incredibly fast, leaving room for joy and writing the worst piece of art of all time.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
There's no way this was the first one but it's the one I remember the most. I was probably around 11 years old and read a paragraph in Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods that made me laugh so hard that I was asked to leave the school library. I remembered the passage well enough that I could find it for this interview.
Looking back, I now realise my entire career has been trying to write something as funny as this paragraph: 'Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that bears might prowl in parties. What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties – I daresay it would even give a merry toot – and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.'
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years?
I must have, but I can't remember many specific bits of writing I did. I was obsessed with Douglas Adams, I know that much, and I'm pretty sure I wrote pages and pages of stuff trying to sound like him. I know I wrote a play for my Year 12 English thing that was about Macbeth and Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby all playing poker. I don't want to sound dramatic, but thinking about it now, it might've been the worst thing anyone ever used language to create. At the time, though, it felt extremely clever.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I don't want to sound dramatic, but thinking about it now, [a play I wrote in Year 12] might've been the worst thing anyone ever used language to create.
I was a bartender for quite a while in my 20s, at least six or seven years, I think. I'm not sure what that did for my writing. I also worked as a closed captioner at the ABC for three or so years. That made me into a very fast typer, which is an insanely boring answer, I know, but it's true! It's helpful to be able to type fast!
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
'You can't edit nothing.' I can't even remember where I first heard it. Maybe from Zoe Norton Lodge? But it's such a useful thing to remember. You can make bad writing good but you can't make no writing anything. So, just get something on the page and worry about making it good later.
I think it's helped me avoid the trap where you agonise about what you're doing, and treat writing like it needs divine inspiration or the perfect circumstances when in reality, it is a job. And it's a job that you're lucky to have, so just get something down, then fix it on the next pass.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I wish I did but I don't. I've tried a bunch of times but just found it so boring. I'm sitting there writing about my day and a big part of me is just going, 'Yeah I know man, I was THERE'.
Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
Definitely not unsung, but I read Charles Portis's True Grit for the first time recently and I was not prepared for how funny it would be. Completely blindsided when really good literary writers are also brilliantly funny. Completely blindsided and also furious. Stay in your lane, please.
As for overrated … this sounds sappy but I don't really think anything is overrated, at least not on a personal level. There's stuff that's structurally overrated, or at least over-exposed or over-taught in schools or whatever, but in terms of what people pick up and enjoy – I mean, if someone gets joy out of reading something, why should I try convince them it's actually not that good? Life is already so hard, just read what you like. That's the long answer. The short answer is 'Harry Potter'.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I know a lot of writers who do this, but when I'm doing scripts I often mutter the lines I'm writing under my breath as I write them. This has become a problem since my wife started working from home, because she finds it, understandably, unsettling.
Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
When I'm doing scripts I often mutter the lines I'm writing under my breath as I write them. This has become a problem since my wife started working from home, because she finds it, understandably, unsettling.
I wish I could change every single thing I've ever written. I'm not being cute – there's genuinely not a single piece of my writing for any medium that I don't wish I could tinker with at least a little bit. Some pieces I wish I could completely overhaul or just toss into the memory hole; others I just want to cut a graph or a line or change a word.
It's not that I don't like stuff I've written, it's just that pretty much as soon as it's published or aired or whatever, I work out what's wrong with it. It's deeply unhealthy. Even this interview – I guarantee that like two years from now I'll still be stewing on something I've written here.
Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?
Grug seems nice.