Working with Words: Melanie Dimmitt
Melanie Dimmitt is a freelance arts, lifestyle and business journalist living in Sydney. She spoke with us about discovering stories, becoming a full-time creative and how she might not notice the apocalypse.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I remember being very upset about The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein as a child. It seemed entirely unfair that a kindly tree should give up its leaves, apples, branches and trunk to appease a bratty boy who grows into a demanding man and never offers so much as a ‘thank you’ in return. A bit of an emotionally abusive relationship here … no?
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
My mother is one of 10 so I was lucky to grow up with loads of aunties who would ‘publish’ (staple together) my meticulously penned and illustrated books about smiling butterflies. In Year Four I wrote a horror story titled ‘The Bunyip’ that I would recite to my class for ‘show and tell’ as the chapters came together, starting from the beginning Every. Single. Time. As I got older my extra-curricular writing didn’t extend beyond birthday cards, letters written in a jointly devised code to my best friend and an alarmingly angsty diary.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
Fresh out of school, I was hell-bent on being an actor and worked retail jobs in Perth, Melbourne and London while studying a couple of arts degrees and getting rejected from every drama school across Australia and the UK. I worked at a bakery, a service station, Myer, a surf shop, a DFO shoe store and a Sportsgirl. In London I managed an Oliver Bonas gift shop before switching into practice management at a physiotherapy clinic on uppity ol’ Harley Street.
After calling it quits on the acting I moved back to Melbourne and typeset newspaper television guides at a company called Pagemasters, where I occasionally wrote film reviews to accompany the listings. After a brief (and surprising – considering my résumé featured a ‘Professional Summery’) stint as the editor of Margaret Gee’s Australian Media Guide, I decided to properly pursue writing. I found another physio clinic – a newly opened one, that I knew would be quiet – and wrote articles and wedding blog posts in between greeting patients and answering the phone.
Working on shop floors and reception desks, where a large portion of my time was spent talking to all kinds of people, I learned that everyone has a story. One of my first articles for the Age was an interview with film composer David Hirschfelder, whose wife Deb visited the physio clinic I was working at. I’ve since (lovingly) pillaged many a friend or newfound acquaintance for content.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Still sitting on a reception desk, still trying to be a writer.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
My cousin Conor is one third of an Irish comedy trio called Foil, Arms and Hog. About eight years ago, he and I were playing a game of pool in the basement of my aunt and uncle’s home after a family wedding. I was just starting out and already sick of writing for free, so asked him how he managed to be a full-time creative. He said: ‘Write your own stuff. No one is going to hand you a project on a platter.’ After that I stopped waiting for commissions and tracked down stories, wrote them up and pitched them in their entirety. It’s a risky, potentially time-wasting approach, but it worked.
Working on shop floors and reception desks, where a large portion of my time was spent talking to all kinds of people, I learned that everyone has a story.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
Yes. Between the ages of 13 and 16 I was pouring my soul on to the pages of numerous notebooks from the $2 shop. I know this was a healthy undertaking for my teenage self but I sometimes wish I hadn’t, as the person in those notebooks – in her self-centred, boy-obsessed glory – makes me cringe now. And her spelling is atrocious (not that it got much better, ‘Professional Summery’ considered). I also find it unnerving how much my handwriting changes from entry to entry, but after doing a little digging, have discovered this isn’t likely to be a sign that I’m some kind of sociopath. In an article for the Cut, journalist Cari Romm succinctly concludes: ‘It’s life that changes, and handwriting just keeps up.’
Once I started writing professionally there was no way I was doing it in my downtime. That was until I made it my mission to write The First 100 Days, an honest telling of the poo-stained truths of early parenthood that I hoped would be my debut book. Parenthood and the debut book did not turn out as expected, but I think they’re pretty special.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
If I get an hour between childrearing, appointments and house running then I’m bashing my keyboard like crazy under any conditions. The apocalypse could be unfolding around me and I wouldn’t know about it.
Well this is awkward. I haven’t read classics since my English Lit class in high school. I liked Shakespeare and Austen but they’re hardly overrated or obscure. The books on my shelves are a lazily sourced compilation of the bestsellers at my local Berkelouw bookstore and whatever Dolly and Pandora have raved about on The High Low podcast. We’re talking Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, Liz Gilbert’s City of Girls, Normal People by Sally Rooney and Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Next question.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I wish I had time for that stuff. If I get an hour between child-rearing, appointments and house-running then I’m bashing my keyboard like crazy under any conditions. The apocalypse could be unfolding around me and I wouldn’t know about it.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
Whenever I read my own work I make tweaks, so I try very hard not to look back. An edited extract from Special was recently published in a few newspapers. It felt weird when I read it prior to print, but I put that down to it being an unfamiliar mish-mash of bits and pieces from various sections of the book. On reflection, I see how unbalanced that article was and wish I’d gone with my gut and made changes.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
Bri Lee, the author of profoundly brilliant Eggshell Skull, if only to apologise for fangirling on her in a wine bar recently.