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Working with Words: Michael Sun

Read Tuesday, 19 Jan 2021

Michael Sun is the Culture Editor at Netflix ANZ and gasbags on FBi Radio every Saturday. We spoke about tutoring, writing inspiration and how Twitter ruins viral essays.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Michael Sun

This isn’t strictly writing, but I have a distinct memory of silently sobbing over the ending of (500) Days of Summer after watching it on an iPod Touch at age 12. It’s the first time I remember being so moved by a piece of media, even if I didn’t realise I was crying for all the wrong reasons until years later.  

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

Unfortunately, I was a teacher’s pet (or a wannabe teacher’s pet, which is infinitely worse) who produced copious amounts of bad poetry, hackneyed stories and what I guess could be classed fan-fiction that I then forced my teachers to read all through school. In year six, I wrote a Christmas play about an elf rebellion that my teacher promised to stage, but then reneged on after I was too disruptive in class. I felt betrayed at the time, but in hindsight I fully understand why she did not want to stage a play written by a primary school student.

I’ll never share this list … but I have a bookmarks folder called ‘writing inspo’ that contains exactly seven pieces which I must read before I begin any new writing.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing? 

In order: maths tutor, English tutor, retail, events, arts marketing, editing. I was very bad at tutoring – a 15-year-old should not be tutoring a 12-year-old in anything other than being 15, and even then – but at the time I thought it was the coolest job in the world. It gave me a weird confidence that I like to think about whenever the imposter syndrome gets particularly bad, which is every time I write anything.  

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

The answer is nothing, not in the romantic ‘I could only ever imagine myself doing writing’ way, but in the Alexa Demie from Euphoria way where I would literally be doing nothing at all except re-watching Real Housewives episodes and loving it. (I say this even though I am unable to sit still for more than 20 seconds; I am nothing if not a walking contradiction).  

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

For a long time, I read everything but the genre of writing I was practising in. I am so glad someone was like, ‘Michael, why do you want even want to be a critic when you don’t read criticism?’ and pointed out the fact that, as mentioned, I am a walking contradiction. 

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I’ve tried and failed to keep a diary many times in the past, because I often can’t remember the events of the day well enough (call it scatter-brain). Now, I’m resigned to logging particularly anxious or melancholy thoughts as a form of expunging them from my mind, with varying results. 

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated? 

I think most viral pieces of writing are overrated, purely because of the detriment served to them by the Twitter ~ discourse ~ that inevitably follows.

Two underrated films that I’ll take the chance to plug here: Jawline by Liza Mandelup and Minding the Gap by Bing Liu (who is directing an adaptation of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous!), docos that both take an incisive look into working-class America through very different lenses – a pre-TikTok TikTok star and a trio of young skaters.  

I think most viral pieces of writing are overrated, purely because of the detriment served to them by the Twitter ~ discourse ~ that inevitably follows.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I’ll never share this list (because it’s telling on myself to the max), but I have a bookmarks folder called ‘writing inspo’ that contains exactly seven pieces which I must read before I begin any new writing. It’s a mix of criticism, memoir, and essays that started out as a tone-setting exercise, but now is more of a myth than anything else – if I don’t read these, my work will be cursed etc. etc.  

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change? 

I would love to change everything I’ve ever written, which is why I try not to re-read old writing! But specifically my year 12 major work, which was a direct rip-off of Bret Easton Ellis (we all had this phase, don’t lie) and also the first thing I ever had published, mostly so that I don’t have to tell people the first thing I ever had published was a direct rip-off of Bret Easton Ellis.  

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with? 

The fanboy in me has a giant list of dream dinner guests which includes Luca Guadagnino, Alexander Chee, Charlize Theron, and the rat from Flushed Away. I would be too nervous to actually speak.

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