Working with Words: Rick Morton

Rick Morton is the Melbourne-based social affairs writer at the Australian. We caught up with Rick to chat about Kurt Vonnegut, The Little Prince and hard-headedness versus hard-heartedness.

Photograph of Rick Morton

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Fassifern Guardian, when I was in Year 7, thanking the teachers for the end of year camp. I’d never seen my name in print before, and despite the fact that I appear to have been insufferable, it was such a thrill.

What’s the best part of your job?

I have had to talk my way into the living rooms of so many strangers’ homes while covering mine closures, asylum-seeker arrivals, childcare struggles, drug addiction, stories about disability, the aftermath of bushfires and floods. I always have this moment, sometimes after someone has just made me a coffee or opened a beer for me in their home, where I think, Wow, this is what I get paid to do. It’s just an exceptionally bizarre thing to be able to do professionally and I adore talking to people about their lives. I honestly adore it.

I once spent an entire day with some Aboriginal elders walking to the top of a mountain on this remote New South Wales property and they told me story after story about the land and its history. I was three hours from an airport with a flight to catch that afternoon and a story to write and it felt like time didn’t matter. To hell with the deadline, I want this!

I guess, ultimately, writing is the act of noticing things.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part is the anxiety of going to bed at night hoping you’ve told the story in the right way. Especially the tough reports. It’s this constant, baseline fear that you may not have allowed enough of a person’s humanity to show through. I know that sounds trite, but I take this part of the job seriously.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

It took a long time for me to believe my writing was worth reading. I’m not entirely sure I believe it now, but I’m getting there. Can a significant moment be something that burns slowly over time? I’ve had a recent breakthrough on a personal project, but it’s early days.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

One of the greatest people I have ever worked with pulled me aside when I was assigned a difficult feature for the paper and said to me: 'Be hard-headed, not hard-hearted'. I think it’s such a fantastic way to approach any writing, creatively or otherwise. Be unflinching and honest, then deploy your compassion. Also, anything written by Anne Lamott on writing is hilarious and pitch-perfect.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I have, on occasion, been told that my writing has given someone hope. Or that it made them laugh. One person said reading my work made them feel less alone. That blows my mind. Had I known I had any hope to give I might have tried to keep some for myself. 

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Crying.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Be unflinching and honest, then deploy your compassion.

I’ve never known the answer to this. I grew up in outback Queensland without any formal training. I do not come from a family of writers or, indeed, big readers. But I have always wanted to write. I think the ability to write well is something that exists in some form inside you but the ability to write brilliantly can come about through training.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write every day. Write notes in your phone. Carry a little notebook. Read everything. Write things about the day that struck you as interesting or funny or hideous. I guess, ultimately, writing is the act of noticing things.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I am terribly impulsive and don’t like the idea of waiting for anything to arrive after ordering online. I also like my books to exist in my hand. So I buy them in person at bookstores.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

Salo the Tralfamadorian explorer from Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. The poor chap witnessed the entirety of human history unfold while waiting for a replacement part for his ship. He would have some good stories to tell, I imagine, and after a few wines I would ask him to identify, precisely, the moment where it all went wrong.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Little Prince. I read this book at a moment in my life when I probably should have been becoming an adult. The Little Prince is all of us, when we were young, before we jettisoned our natural curiosity and ability to be vulnerable. It seems a shame to let those things go just for the sake of being an adult, whatever that means.

Portrait of Rick Morton

Rick Morton is the social affairs writer at the Australian. He grew up on a cattle station, almost found a dinosaur and has a significant problem with deadlines. Rick lives in Melbourne.

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