All posts in Writing

  • The Walkley Magazine story: ‘Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk’, April 2017

    A story for issue 88 of The Walkley Magazine, the quarterly publication for Australian media professionals. Excerpt below.

    Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk

    Newsletter as lifeline.

    The Walkley Magazine story by Andrew McMillen: 'Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk', April 2017. Illustration by Tom Jellett

    The email subject line in edition #139 was “Clown doctors, giant pigs and public shaming”, while #99 was titled “Gay twins, shot elephants and friendly magpies”. The intention is always to pique the reader’s interest, so that if they see Dispatches among a few dozen emails in their inbox, mine is the one they’ll want to open first, because they are curious about these three unique phrases—taken from the recommendations contained within—and want to know more.

    Every week, you see, I spend an hour or two compiling an email newsletter that is sent to people around the world. Some of them are my friends and family; others I have never met before, and have no idea how they came across my work. Since starting with zero subscribers in March 2014, I have now delivered more than 140 editions. The newsletter is called Dispatches, after the Michael Herr book of the same name. It is a space where I recommend excellent feature articles and books I have read and enjoyed, as well as podcasts, music, and my own recently published writing.

    Its format has remained unchanged in the three years since I started. There are three sections: Words, Sounds and Reads. I choose a relevant image to announce each section, because I know that an email newsletter consisting only of text can be a little overwhelming.

    Since the beginning, I have sent the newsletter on Thursday mornings. This was a deliberate choice: as Friday tends to be the busiest day for office workers scrambling to meet deadlines before clocking off for the weekend, I figured that seeing a long, considered email from me a couple of mornings before the workweek ends might offer a welcome reprieve. Setting an expectation around a weekly publication schedule might help to give others some structure in their work lives, too. (Perhaps I am projecting.)

    For the first couple of years, I would compile the recommendations on Wednesday, and then wait until waking the following morning to manually press “send” using a free online service called TinyLetter. Now, I publish it just after midnight, in the wee hours of Thursday morning—which suits me better as a night owl, anyway. It’s the last thing I do before going to bed, and it pleases me to know that, by the time I’m back at the desk the following morning, more than a hundred people will have already opened the latest edition.

    To read the full story, visit The Walkley Magazine on Medium. Above illustration credit: Tom Jellett.

  • Statement from UQP regarding ‘Skeleton School’, December 2016

    A statement from my book publisher UQP, via its website:

    “The University of Queensland Press (UQP) agreed in 2014 to publish a work written by award-winning Brisbane journalist and author Andrew McMillen, titled Skeleton School: Dissecting The Gift Of Body Donation. In accordance with the publishing agreement, Mr McMillen delivered the work – which was intended to be his second book for UQP – in 2016.

    UQP regrets to advise that, through no fault of Mr McMillen, it is unable to publish Skeleton School. The University is now of the view that the publication of any book on the issue of the Body Donor Program, however sensitive, may upset some families and friends of participants in that program. There is no suggestion that this decision reflects in any way on the quality and standard of the book, which met the expectations of UQP.

    UQP is hopeful that it may have the opportunity to publish further works written by Mr McMillen.”

  • Backchannel story: ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!’, August 2016

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

    How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.

    'Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!' by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel, August 2016. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.

    Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard,where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.

    But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.

    Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.

    Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.

    After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

    More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you.You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission—one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • Announcing ‘Penmanship’, my podcast about Australian writing culture, May 2015

    Logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillenI’m proud to announce the launch of Penmanship, my podcast about Australian writing culture.

    Penmanship will feature interviews with Australians who earn a living from working with words: writers, editors and publishers, among others.

    Each episode consists of an in-depth, one-on-one conversation about the guest’s career, craft and inner life. The show’s goal is to provide unique insights into the creative process, mechanics and skills behind the best writing in the country. The podcast exists to explore the diversity and complexity of Australian storytelling by speaking directly with leading contributors to the field.

    The written description and embedded audio for the first episode are included below.

    Penmanship podcast episode 1: Trent Dalton, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015Penmanship Episode 1: Trent Dalton

    Trent Dalton is a staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine.

    He’s one of the most influential journalists in my life, and I’m honoured that he’s my first guest on Penmanship.

    Trent’s writing moves and inspires me with shocking regularity. Judging by the volume of praise-filled letters to the editor published in The Weekend Australian Magazine following each of his stories, I’m not the only one.

    Our interview touches on Trent’s upbringing in Bracken Ridge, Brisbane; his early interest in magazine journalism; working at an auto-electrical parts supplier for a year after finishing high school; studying creative writing at university; his first writing job at Brisbane News on a salary of $26,000; his pre-interview tactic of looking in the bathroom mirror and reciting a mantra misquoted from Reservoir Dogs; and his transition to writing feature stories with great emotional depth.

    Previously, Trent was a staff writer at Qweekend and an assistant editor of The Courier-Mail. He has won a Walkley Award for excellence in journalism, been a three-time winner of the national News Awards Feature Journalist of the Year Award, and was named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the 2011 Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland media. His journalism has twice been nominated for a United Nations of Australia Media Peace Award.

    Trent Dalton on Twitter: @TrentDalton

    Direct download          iTunes          libsyn

    Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

    To learn more about Penmanship, head over to its standalone website, and subscribe via iTunes or your preferred method of podcast consumption.

    The show’s logo and header image was designed and illustrated by Canberra-based cartoonist Stuart McMillen; click the below image for a closer look at the full desk scene.

    Desk scene logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillen

  • Introducing ‘Dispatches’: a weekly email newsletter, March 2014

    In March 2014 I started Dispatches, a weekly newsletter about my three passions: writing, music and reading. A screenshot of the first dispatch, Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars, is included below.

    'Dispatches #1: Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars', a weekly email newsletter by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    I named it Dispatches after one of my favourite books: Michael Herr’s classic ‘new journalism’ narrative, first published in 1977, which placed the author near the centre of the Vietnam War while reporting for Esquire. I first read it in March 2012 and even writing about it here is almost enough to send me running to my bookshelf to tear through it again. Herr has a remarkable command of language. Clearly, the book comes highly recommended.

    The format will no doubt change over time, but for now I’ve split it into thirds:

    Words – highlighting my newly published writing, when applicable
    Sounds – music and podcast recommendations
    Reads – a selection of the best longform journalism and books I read in the past week

    If you like any of those three things, you might consider subscribing via TinyLetter here. If, like me, you spend too many hours each week immersed in your inbox, you can ‘try before you buy’ by viewing an archive of past mailouts here and deciding whether it’s worth your time. I hope it is.

    Besides offering a more regular way of keeping in touch with my readers than through this rather static blog or my cautious public engagement on social media, Dispatches is intended to be an interactive experiment-in-progress. At 26, I’ve done a reasonable amount of work of developing my own tastes, but I’m certainly open to your suggestions when it comes to reading and music.

    Finally: I’d like to note that Dispatches is inspired by Ryan Holiday’s fantastic monthly reading recommendation newsletter, and by the weekly emails sent by journalism hubs Longform and Longreads. I’m not aiming to compete with any of those mailouts – in part, because all three are so fucking good that I’d be setting myself up to fail. Instead, I’m offering a personalised take on the words and sounds that enter my skull each week and influence the way I interpret the world and write about it.

    Welcome to Dispatches.

  • Why it took nearly three months to remove offensive graffiti from my street in New Farm, Brisbane, October 2012

    “FUCK NIGGERS,” read the graffiti in large, white, spraypainted letters.

    I know the graffiti well because we lived on the same street in New Farm, an inner-city suburb of Brisbane – population 12,500 – which, up until recently, I’d understood as one of the city’s most socially progressive neighbourhoods. Yet there they were, two words utterly incongruous with social progression painted onto the brickwork of the ‘Bowen Gardens’ apartment complex, 484 Bowen Terrace, right beside the eight mailboxes that its residents check daily.

    When I first saw the words on 2 August 2012, I stopped and pondered the paint. It was unsettling to see it displayed so prominently, on a highly-trafficked road that runs parallel to Brunswick Street, the suburb’s main thoroughfare. I was compelled enough to take a photo on my phone. This wasn’t right.

    As a fan and student of hip-hop, I’m familiar with – and fond of – both words being used in abundance. Expressed in these terms, though – one word followed by the other, in isolation – I encountered a feeling of deep discomfort. Of shame.

    After I took the photo, I walked home and told myself that someone else would deal with this problem. I thought about the broken windows theory, which posits that the best way to deal with vandalism and anti-social behaviour is to fix problems when they’re small, lest those small problems become large. Surely, the residents of Bowen Gardens would band together and paint over the graffiti, or at least cover it up. Surely they were embarrassed to see those words every day.

    It’s impossible to know whether the words were written with hate in mind, or whether the graffitist was being playful, or ironic. In the absence of context, the imagination of the passerby fills in the blanks. I chose not to see a playful joke. I saw no irony. I saw a statement which jarred with my reality of life in New Farm, Brisbane, circa 2012.

    The phrase “FUCK NIGGERS” doesn’t belong anywhere in my life, hip-hop appreciation aside. I don’t want to read those words as I walk down my street. From the moment I first saw the graffiti, I was disgusted. Yet the longer the graffiti lived on, the more it consumed my thoughts; the more it became a part of my life.

    Weeks passed. I walked by the words several times each week; to and from the local basketball court, to and from the supermarket. Each time my eyes passed across the text, I asked myself why nothing had been done.

    My thoughts turned to buying a can of spraypaint and modifying it myself; perhaps by replacing the second word with “BIGOTS”. I questioned what the ongoing display of these words said about New Farm, about the residents of Bowen Terrace.

    I questioned what the words said about me, for I was similarly to blame for this ongoing broadcast. I’d done as much as anyone else: namely, nothing. Since my inaction had formed a kind of tacit acceptance – I’d acknowledged to myself that the graffiti existed, yet I chose not to intervene – I wondered what the graffiti said about my own cowardice.

    I thought about the nature of offence, which cut to the heart of why the graffiti unsettled me so: in base terms, it offended me. I found the tag offensive because I read it as a targeted, malicious comment toward a group of humans. I did not sympathise with the sentiment of the comment – “FUCK NIGGERS” – and so I was offended. Again and again.

    One afternoon, it all became too much. While practicing basketball at the local court, after walking by the text for perhaps the thirtieth time, I drafted a letter in my head to the residents of Bowen Gardens. It read:

    “Greetings! I am a journalist who lives further up Bowen Terrace. I’m writing to enquire about the graffiti that’s been spraypainted onto the front of Bowen Gardens. You may have seen it. You might even have glanced at it today before opening your mailbox to find this note. I would like to ask you a few questions about this graffiti, at your earliest convenience. Please call, message or email me using the details below. ”

    I printed and signed eight copies of this note – seven for the residents, one for the body corporate – and pushed them through each letterbox at 3pm on Wednesday, 19 September.

    I didn’t expect a reply from any of the residents, as I had effectively drawn attention to their tacit acceptance of the statement. This would undoubtedly cause embarrassment to all who read the note, as it reminded the reader that other locals, too, had eyes and were unimpressed with the graffiti: its content, its permanence, their inaction.

    I did, however, expect that the words would be removed by the body corporate, or at least covered up, soon after I’d mailed those eight notes.

    I was wrong.

    ++

    On the morning of Wednesday, October 3, an acting detective sergeant with the Queensland Police Service (QPS) knocks on my front door. He’s here because I’d emailed a request to the executive director of QPS media and public affairs the previous morning, stating that I was writing about this particular piece of graffiti. In the email, I wondered if I could show it to a police officer and interview them before the Bowen Gardens brickwork.

    My request was passed through a few hands until it landed with the detective sergeant, who works with the Brisbane City Council’s cutely-acronymed Taskforce Against Graffiti. Over the phone that afternoon, he had asked me whether the graffiti was painted on public or private property. I told him that I wasn’t sure; the brickwork is part of a private dwelling, but it extends onto the footpath and is displayed prominently.

    The last question he asked me was, “Do you find it offensive?”
    “Yes,” I replied.

    While the detective sergeant and I walk down Bowen Terrace together – he isn’t authorised to give media interviews, so I won’t identify him – I think about how bizarre it is that this seemingly simple concern has now drawn the attention of a high-ranking police officer.

    This is a privilege afforded to me as a journalist, of course: any request from the news media is dealt with seriously, lest an error, inaction or omission land QPS in hot water. We arrive at the graffiti, which has now stood loud and proud before Bowen Gardens for over two months, broadcasting its residents’ apparent bigotry to all and sundry.

    If the detective sergeant is shocked by the words, he doesn’t show it. I tell him about the note I wrote to the seven residents and their body corporate two weeks ago, inviting their comment on the graffiti. I tell him that I haven’t heard back from anyone. He writes “FUCK NIGGERS” in his notebook, in quotation marks.

    “I don’t like it, either,” he says. He explains that the brickwork is indeed private property; the Brisbane City Council is responsible for the footpath, but not the brick structure itself. He tells me he’ll knock on some doors in an effort to contact the body corporate. The detective sergeant hands me his card, shakes my hand, and we part ways.

    All of a sudden, while walking back up the hill, I feel foolish. I had approached this as a concerned New Farm resident first, journalist second, yet by escalating this concern to the Queensland Police Service I’ve leapfrogged the ordinary council graffiti-removal process available to New Farm residents: namely, to fill out an online complaint form and wait for a response. Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

    The detective sergeant calls me soon after, saying that he’d spoken to a female resident of Bowen Gardens. She said that the residents had asked body corporate for some chemicals to remove the graffiti. Their attempts to do so had evidently failed. He tells me that he’ll put a removal request through to the council, and that it’ll be gone within 24 hours. We thank each other, and say our goodbyes once again. And that, it seemed, was the end of that.

    ++

    Not quite. Sadly, it took another fifteen days for the tag to be removed. I followed up with the detective sergeant via email on October 10, one week after we’d met and inspected the graffiti together. “From memory, you told me last Wednesday, 3 October, that the incident had been reported and that the graffiti would be removed within 24 hours,” I wrote. “Is this correct, or did I mishear? As of 12pm today, the graffiti is still there.”

    I got a reply on October 15, five days later. “I was informed that the Graffiti is usually removed within 24 hrs of reporting if the material is deemed to be offensive which of course it was!” he wrote. “I will take up with the Brisbane City Council and see where they are with this job that was logged that very day that I spoke to you!”

    I offered for the detective sergeant to put me directly in touch with the council graffiti removal team. He wrote back: “I will get a response Andrew and let you know as I was of the opinion that it should have been done!”

    Three days later, just after midday on Thursday, October 18, another email from the detective sergeant arrived. “Good afternoon Andrew, I have been informed that the Brisbane City Council removed that graffiti this morning and the wall is now clean. Thankyou for bringing it to the attention of Police and the Council.”

    I walked down the street to fact-check. He was right.

    I’m glad that the graffiti is gone, but my eyes will be drawn back to that spot on the brickwork as long as I live on Bowen Terrace. Every time I pass by Bowen Gardens, I’ll think about those two words and their 80-odd days of existence. I’ll wonder how long they would’ve stayed there if I hadn’t intervened. (Or if I hadn’t followed up with the detective after our meeting, even.)

    I’ll look at the bricks and I’ll wonder why I didn’t act earlier. I’ll wonder why no-one else made a complaint. And I’ll vow to never again let my inaction bleed into tacit acceptance of a malicious, hateful statement made public, writ large, in my own neighbourhood.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. 

  • Freelance journalism presentation at Walkley MediaPass student industry day, August 2012

    I was invited by the Walkley Foundation to speak at the Brisbane leg of their annual MediaPass student industry days, which are held at capital cities across Australia. The brief was thus:

    Surviving and Thriving as a Freelancer

    Find out how to pitch a story, network and negotiate contracts. Featuring:
    [from left to right, below]

    Before an audience of around 40 final-year journalism students at the Brisbane Powerhouse, we each gave a five minute presentation and then fielded questions from the audience for the remaining half-hour. I spoke on the topic of ‘twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind’.

    My presentation is embedded below. Click here to watch on YouTube. (Apologies for the footage being off-centre.) I’ve also included the text of my talk underneath.

    Twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind

    1. Freelancing, at its heart, is really just hustling. It’s learning how to support yourself through persistence, energy and ingenuity. That’s all. Learn how to hustle and you’re set. The only problem is that it takes years to learn how to hustle consistently.

    2.When you start freelancing, the learning curve is steep. You’re fighting against the world; fighting to be heard, fighting to get your name recognised, fighting to get paid. You probably won’t make enough money to pay your rent in the first year, which is why you should do other work on the side until you’re ready to freelance full-time.

    3. But eventually – perhaps years later – it becomes less of a fight. You learn to glide through the world rather than struggling against it. You see things differently, with wiser eyes. You can dip in and out of conversations, projects, and work relationships with much less friction, because there’s much less to lose. You have less to prove, because you’ve already proven yourself to some extent.

    4. There’s a lot to be said for starting slow, though, and at the bottom. For example, I wrote for street press, essentially without being paid, for nearly two years before I decided that writing and journalism was what I really wanted to do. From there, it was a slow process of me working out how to get paid for what I really wanted to do.

    5. Find your gap in the market, but be patient. After doing freelance journalism for a few years, I eventually realised that my gap is to read between the lines and write about what others aren’t. That’s when I’m happiest. That’s not to say that all of my writing consists of that kind of work. I’d say less than half of my income comes from writing those kinds of investigative feature stories. It’s worth pointing out that I only had this realisation in the last 12 months, too.

    6. I definitely didn’t know my gap in the market when I started freelancing. In fact I had very little idea of what I was doing when I started freelancing. I just did it. I followed my interests, and my instincts, and kept knocking on doors. Some opened, some remained closed. When I started freelancing, music journalism was the only kind I did. Gradually, other interests took hold, and now music is one of many topics that I write about. I’d likely never have found these other interests, or that I could write about them, unless I’d started with music, though. So don’t be afraid to specialise early. You never know where your career will lead if you just keep at it.

    7. Hunger can’t be learned, only encouraged. You, and you alone, must be hungry enough to want to succeed. This is an inbuilt character trait, I believe – you can’t be taught to be hungry. You’ve got to be serious, and dedicate yourself to your work, if you want to succeed at freelancing.

    8. Your professional reputation is everything. Guard it with your life. Act with integrity at all times. Don’t do things in private that you wouldn’t be comfortable with, if it became public.

    9. Make a list of the best practitioners in your field; your favourites. Consume their work over and over. Work out why you like them and what they do that appeals to you. Then think about how you can put an original spin on their approach, or their approaches. It’ll take you a while to find your style and voice in any creative medium – writing, photography, comedy, illustrations. Don’t rush it. I’m not even sure if you can rush it, anyway. It’s a process that can’t be short-cut.

    10. Surround yourself with allies. Not necessarily other freelancers. Not necessarily people working in the same field as you. But you should start building up a support network, and regularly keep in touch with as many of those people as you can, because some of your best work will arise from one-off meetings or incidental friendships. Allies are important because freelancing is generally a solitary activity. Everyone needs to communicate with others at some stage. Best to start early.

    11. Be wary of anyone who glamourises the so-called “freelance lifestyle”. Most of freelancing is incredibly mundane. Seriously. Most of my days are spent alone at the computer. Some weeks I don’t even leave the house during my workdays. But there are definitely occasional glimmers of awesomeness that remind you why you’re doing this, and why you love it. Don’t get me wrong, freelancing is great, but to a certain extent it’s a job just like any other. There will be days when you won’t want to do any work. However, if you can push yourself to work even on those shitty days, you’ll eventually be a great freelancer.

    12. Don’t talk so much online. Just do good work, make meaningful connections, and be pleasant to everyone you meet behind the scenes. Try not to buy too much into meaningless talk-fests on Twitter and Facebook. Ultimately, you are the only person standing between success and failure. While you’re tweeting away your workdays, your freelance competition is quietly beating you. Don’t give them the chance.

    Elsewhere: I participated in the freelance panel at the Walkley Foundation’s last MediaPass student day in September 2011, too. Footage and text here.

  • Vale Andrew McMillan, Darwin-based journalist and author: 1957-2012

    Darwin-based journalist and author Andrew McMillan [pictured below] died yesterday, January 28 2012, aged 54. I received word via a text message from Andrew Stafford just after I went to bed, around midnight. I wrote back, “Holy shit. Thanks.” Then I lay awake for the next hour, cursing myself. I was to meet him in Darwin, six days later.

    I first became aware of the eerie reality that I was following in the footsteps of my near-namesake soon after my work was nationally published. Looking at my email history, the first mention of his name is in a note from Australian writer Clinton Walker on August 12, 2009.

    andrew,
    this is so funny because only lately been in touch w my old friend from bris old rock writer andrew mcmillan, you must be aware of your precedence, and a fine one it is too […] i had a look ata bit of your stuff and really enjoyed it and wanted to say goodonya and keepitup. clinton walker

    In February 2010, I was emailed by the international label manager/A&R at Shock Records, David Laing.

    hey Andrew,
    I assume you’re the same AM who used to write for RAM? If yes, first of all, thanks for all the great writing that was hugely influential on me in my teenage years fromthe 100th issue of RAM (my first) onwards… also, I’m responsible for a few releases that you may have an interest in if you care at all for the styles of music you used to write about – including a couple of compilations called Do The Pop! that trace the incluence of the Saints and primarily Radio Birdman into the local real rock’n’roll scene in ’80s, and also some reissued from the Hitmen – and I’d love to send you copies if you’re interested in seeing them…
    Thanks and regards
    dave

    Then in May 2010, in an email conversation with Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford:

    By the way, are you aware of yet another rock-writing Andrew, your namesake in fact, Andrew McMillan? Slightly different spelling – but Andrew, along with Clint Walker, was one of the original rock journos in this town, and arguably the most original. Started Suicide Alley (later Pulp) fanzine with Clint – the first rock fanzine in the country – and later wrote Strict Rules, his fantastic account of Midnight Oil’s tour through Aboriginal communities in 1986, leading to the Diesel and Dust album. A fascinating man and a great writer, well worth your checking out. – AS

    Then in November 2010, in an email conversation with Australian singer Carol Lloyd of the band Railroad Gin:

    It may freak you out to know that in the 70’s, Railroad Gin were often reported on by a guy who wrote for Rolling Stone, Juke etc. who was called Andrew McMillan….! He’s now a novelist based in Darwin..saw him when I did a panel thing with Noel Mengel at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

    I wrote back, “By the way, I am aware of Andrew McMillan! We’ve not met yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.”

    The sad reality is that this will never happen, now.

    In recent months – having reached a point in my writing career where I felt up to the challenge – I became more interested in exploring the concept of meeting this man, this well-known writer with whom I share more than a few parallels. I knew that he was ill, first with bowel cancer, and now with liver cancer. On November 25, 2011, I emailed him for the first time:

    Hi Andrew,

    I don’t believe we’ve ever emailed, but I’ve certainly been aware of you for a few years now as we have almost exactly the same name. I’ve been mistaken for you many times! More on me at the web address in my signature..

    How are you? Last I heard was that you were in a poor state following the removal of a bowel tumor – I think this is the last thing I read about you, just over a year ago. Judging by your Facebook page, seems you’re doing much better now. I caught your recent interview on the MusicNT website, too. Good stuff.

    I wanted to ask a favour. I’d like to visit you at your home in the new year, and interview you extensively. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a young journalist like myself to talk about writing and life with an older bloke who almost shares the same name with me.

    Is this a possibility? Is this something you’d be interested in? Or should I bugger off?

    Happy to chat anytime mate. My number below.

    He replied the next day:

    Hi Andrew,

    Tickled to hear from you. The first I heard of you was via a flurry of emails from fans who read a piece in the The Australian and wondered what the fuck had happened to my style. I was bewildered. Then in 2009 when I was due to appear at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival I found myself on the bill of a Queensland music festival with old mate Christie Eliezer etc talking about music journalism. A strange call, given I’d rarely concentrated on music writing since about 1985. I accepted the invitation but got no response. Obviously they had the ‘en’ in mind.

    I get emails occasionally congratulating me on reviews of records I’ve never heard. And calls from people seeking contact details for band managers I’m supposed to be best mates with. I plead ignorance; they, no doubt, hold my ignorance against you.

    That said, I’m intrigued by the concept of a music journo called Andrew McMillen coming out of Brisbane. I was first published in 1975 and got out of there in 1977. Never looked back.

    I’m now dealing with liver cancer and all kinds of shit, so my time appears to be short, hence forming a band The Rattling Mudguards and having much fun on the way out.

    I trust your transcriptions are accurate so I’d be happy to entertain you in Darwin in January.

    Cheers,

    Andrew McMillan.

    * Patron, Life Member: Northern Territory Writers’ Centre
    * Acting Chief Of Staff (1991-2011): DARWIN’S 4TH ESTATE
    www.myspace.com/darwins4thestate
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ryZ36Ts0Gg&feature=email
    * President For Life: Darwin Foreign Correspondents’ Association
    * Founder: John Jenkins Society (est. Hotel Darwin, 1989)
    www.andrewmcmillan.com.au

    The Christmas period passed. I finished reading Andrew Stafford’s copy of Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, Andrew’s account of the 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities shared by the Australian rock groups Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.

    (To further confuse matters, a handwritten note on the book’s first page reads, “To Andrew – welcome to Strict Rules. Best wishes, Andrew McMillan.” It’s for Stafford, not me, but plenty of people thought otherwise when I showed them.)

    It’s an excellent read; profound, beautiful, and heartbreaking, by turns. You can read an excerpt on Midnight Oil’s website. Drummer Rob Hirst wrote the foreword for a re-released version of the book in 2008; it was first published in 1988, the year I was born.

    McMillan captures the feel of the Australian desert better than any writer I’ve read. For the first half of the book, he refers to himself in the third person, as “the hitch-hiker”. (The book is dedicated to Andrew’s mother, father, and “the people who pick up hitch-hikers.”) It’s a cracking read, and the pace never wavers as he explores the logistics behind the tour, the nightly performances to mostly-bewildered locals, the history of the land, and the people who live there. After I finished, all I could think was: I wish I read this sooner.

    On January 2, I emailed Andrew to arrange my Darwin visit.

    Hi Andrew – happy new year. How are you?

    I want to check with you re timing for my planned excursion to Darwin. Are there any particular days or weeks that we should avoid? My January is filling up pretty fast so it might be best to look at early-mid Feb. What do you think?

    He replied the same day:

    At this stage my diary is free for 2012, apart from putting the finishing touches to an anthology (selected works 1976-2011) and the live album my new band The Rattling Mudguards recorded in October with Don Walker on piano and the Loose Screws on backing vocals.

    Apart from that, everything else is dictated by my health. I’m fairly confident, despite the prognosis, that I’ll still be around in February and look forward to meeting you then.

    I asked him whether I could stay at his home, and about the exact nature of his prognosis. On January 3, he told me:

    You’re welcome to camp here unless I’m in need of a full-time carer by then. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

    The prognosis? They got it wrong last year when they said I wouldn’t make through the footy season. The latest, a month ago, gave me three months max. I aim to beat that. I’ve got a few things to finish off yet.

    On January 16, after getting caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of freelance journalism for a couple of weeks, I emailed Andrew after working out my ideal travel dates.

    Hey Andrew,

    How are you? A quick note to let you know that I’m intending to fly to Darwin on Thursday February 2. Not sure how long I intend to stay yet; up to a week is my best estimate at the moment. I just wanted to check that this date is OK before booking flights.

    The next day, Andrew said:

    Feb 2 sounds good. If we run into problems, friends within the neighbourhood and without have offered to put you up for a few nights.

    I’ve attached an old RAM story from 1981 I’ve dug up for my anthology. I transcribed it a few nights ago. Would you mind proof-reading it for words that are obviously out of place? I figure it’ll be a neat exercise for you, giving you a clean sense of how I was writing 30 years ago and how we move on.

    I was honoured to proof-read his old work, about an Australian band named Matt Finish. The same day, January 17, I replied:

    Flights are booked for Friday Feb 3, returning Wed Feb 8. Arriving around midday on the Friday. I’m seeing (and reviewing) Roger Waters do The Wall on Feb 1 and didn’t fancy the early flight on the 2nd. So 3rd it is.

    A good read on Matt Finish. Had never heard of them. I’ve attached a doc with a couple of comments down the right side, but no changes to the main text. Just a few small things that I noticed.

    I was chatting to Jim White of Dirty Three today for a story I’m writing. He asked whether I was you. He remembers your writing from RAM.

    Do keep sending through some stuff to read ahead of my visit. I finished Strict Rules a couple weeks back (borrowed Andrew Stafford’s copy) and loved it.

    That was the last I heard from Andrew. On January 24, I followed up my last email and asked, “Is everything OK – or as OK can be, given your situation?” Four days later, he died.

    I feel foolish for having not ventured north earlier, for not having appreciated the urgency of his situation. Upon receiving that text message last night, I felt immediately that this mistake will be one of my biggest regrets.

    I have no idea how our meeting would have unfolded. I was looking for inspiration, for insight; I wanted to learn about writing from a man who has written his whole life. It saddens me that we only ever exchanged a few casual emails. I was looking forward to days of conversation, of introspection, of self-analysis, of advice, of inspiration.

    Vale Andrew McMillan. I hardly knew you. I wish I did.

    Written by Brisbane-based journalist Andrew McMillen, January 29 2012.

    Above photo credits, respectively: Bob Gosford, Glenn Campbell, Bob Gosford.

    Update, January 30: ABC News NT have uploaded a fine video tribute to Andrew on their YouTube channel. It runs for two and a half minutes and can be viewed below.

  • Interviewed by Bianca Valentino about freelance journalism, October 2011

    Brisbane-based music journalist and zine maker Bianca Valentino has posted a long interview with me on her blog, Conversations With Bianca.  Here we speak about freelance journalism, interviewing, and goal-setting. Excerpt below.

    Interview: Andrew McMillen on Freelance Journalism In Australia, Writing & Interviewing

    To me Australian journalist Andrew McMillen is without a doubt a success. His work has been published in/for Rolling Stone Australia, The Weekend Australian, QWeekend, Mess + Noise, The Vine, Triple J Mag, The Courier-Mail, Australian Penthouse, Gamespot, BrisbaneTimes.com.au and Junior. Andrew has managed to make freelance journalism in Australia pay the bills, not an easy task! Here Andrew and I discuss interviewing, challenges facing freelance journalists in Australia, his career goals and aspirations as well an insight into how he’s made writing a full-time gig. I give you a chat with two writers that deeply care about their craft…

    I get a little nervous before my interviews, just a little. Good nerves though I think.
    ANDREW MCMILLEN: Ha, you know Neil Strauss told me the same thing which I think is fascinating because he’s pretty much at the top of his game yet he still feels that way. He told me it is because of the expectations that he puts on himself to do the best interview that that person has ever done. Obviously if you are talking to some of the most famous people in the world then that is a pretty tough ask most of the time.

    Do you get that way yourself?
    AM: Yeah, in the moments leading up to an interview. On the phone it’s usually worse because of that anticipation – you’re walking around in the morning or whenever it is and you know it’s coming up ’cause it’s in your schedule and you know you’ll be fine once you start doing it but it’s just the planning and waiting that increases my anticipation for it. Once you’re actually in the moment I find that you’re fine.

    There have been moments in my interviewing career where I have had almost a constant anxiety attack throughout the whole interview and then because I wasn’t in the moment when I got off the phone I was like, damn! I wish I hadn’t been so worked up I didn’t see the opportunity to ask an awesome question.
    AM: Do you think that came down to a lack of preparation on your part?

    No – I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety at the time – I do more research than anyone else that I know for my interviews and with a lot of people I interview I have long-standing relationships and friendships I’ve built up with them over our careers, sometimes a decade or more. At times when I’ve done interviews I get an almost out of body experience or it’s almost a trance like state. I can’t quite explain it. I’ve had some amazing experiences and connections interviewing. I really, really care about what I do.
    AM: Yeah, wow! For me a big part of it for me is being present in the moment. You’ve got your list of questions in front of you that you want to get through but you should be willing to go with what they want to say and change in direction if need be. I’ve done interviews where I have lots of stuff prepared but then I only get to ask three or four questions and the rest of it is made up on the spot because they go off on some tangent which interests me and then I push them on that and go down an entirely different path. Some of those interviews have been some of the most enjoyable interviews I think, the ones which don’t go how you planned at all. I think that comes down to being versatile and being able to change it up on the spot.

    I’ve had some interviews where I’ve had a list of 50 questions and pretty much not even asked one of them. I also have notes on hand as well as questions. I did an interview with Dr Know from the Bad Brains – I’d loved that band for so long – once and when I started talking to him I felt it kind of fell apart. It was a really interesting interview for me where I learnt a lot from.
    AM: It turned out good in the end though didn’t it?

    Yeah in the end it did but at the time when I got off the phone to him I burst into tears – it’s the first and only interview that’s ever happened with. I thought I’d really failed. It meant so much to me because they were one of the first overtly spiritual hardcore punk bands and those two things mean the world to me. Reading the interview back though I realised it was awesome!
    AM: I love that reflection of how you might not realise it in the moment but then you type it up afterwards and awesome stuff comes out, it speaks a lot about the person, it speaks a lot about your talent to get that kind of thing out of them. I like when people say ‘I’ve never told anyone else before but…’ and then they tell you.

    That makes your heart stop a little and you’re like ‘hell yeah!’
    AM: [laughs].

    I wanted to clarify, is writing your sole work that you do?
    AM: Yeah I’ve done it full-time since June 2009. Up until October 2010 I was doing a bunch of copywriting and web project management, client management stuff for a small business called Native Digital. I was doing that as well as journalism so I wasn’t fully concentrating on journalism. Since October last year my full energy has gone into pitching, researching, interviewing and writing – it was a real shift in my mindset because it wasn’t just me plugging away trying to get my name out someone else [Nick Crocker] was investing time, energy and to a certain extent their reputation in introducing me to other people. We’d have weekly updates and they’d really just push me with each passing day to make sure that I was getting better—more connecting, pitching harder and pushing harder. That was the real shift for me in 2009.

    Since the start of last year Nick and I started this pitching spreadsheet where every time I pitched any kind of article to anyone – it could be an album review or a feature story – I’d track it in a Google Docs spread sheet so we could both see what was going on and what the response was and what stories were worth to me in a money sense. That was a business management strategy that Nick employed to get me to be more accountable for my actions so that I could see on a daily basis what I have on, what I’ve earned and I can see how it’s changed between now and six months ago. If I look back from now to Feb 2010 the changes are just ridiculous. I was totally green back then in terms of the stories I was pitching and the relationship I had with editors. Now it’s at a much more advanced level because I have those systems in place and I’m accountable and keep pushing harder. That relationship with Nick has been a massive part of why I am where I am.

    I’ve had a few conversations with Nick where he has encouraged me. I remember our first chat he asked me why I hadn’t started a blog yet. I told him I was waiting for this or for that and he told me there will never be a perfect time and to just start doing it.
    AM: He is incredible in that way. He’s started several businesses, he has that entrepreneurial spirit in him obviously but he even applies all that stuff to non-business things. He had this blog called Way Cool Jnr for a couple of years that he used to push his ideas about the music industry just for the hell of it. He wasn’t getting paid for it, it was for free. It became one of the most popular music blogs in Australia for some time. I took over editing it last year and I did it for a while but I stopped that recently because I can’t give it the time it needs which is a shame. That brand, that blog called Way Cool Jnr had a good name for itself and it just shows you can start a blog and it can have an impact even if it’s not for a business purpose. I have my own blog which I’ve had for a couple of years and it was cool to have that inbuilt audience from Way Cool Jnr.

    For the full interview, visit Bianca’s blog. You can find her on Twitter at @BiancaValentino, too. Thanks for the interview, Bianca.

  • Stilts journal submission: ‘Home is where I live and work’, September 2011

    I was asked to submit a piece for the first issue of a Brisbane literary journal named Stilts. The brief was short: I could write about anything, as long as it began with ‘Home is where…’. I decided to write frankly about what it’s like to work from home, which I’ve been doing on and off for over two years.

    I’ve included the full text below; click here to check out the rest of the Stilts issue, which includes an excellent piece from John Birmingham. Illustration by Merilyn Smith.

    Home is where I live and work

    Business and leisure, both rolled into the one location. This has benefits and costs. Benefit: No early-morning, cross-town commute. Cost: If I don’t have any meetings scheduled, I generally don’t leave the house. There’s a point each day—usually about 2pm—where I become thoroughly disgusted with myself and have to change out of my pyjamas. Benefit: A dedicated, comfortable workspace that’s free from distraction. Theoretically. Cost: Every form of entertainment imaginable is never more than a few footsteps or mouse clicks away from that same workspace.

    I am a freelance journalist. I’ve been doing this full time for almost a year. Monday to Friday I research, pitch, interview for, and write stories. I try to adhere to the business hours of the ‘real world’ so that I can interact with people at their workplaces. People, like editors, who determine my weekly income.

    I often feel as though I’m living outside the system. I can pinpoint this feeling on my choice to not partake in the work commute. I’ve been there before, and found that the cyclical nature of that process—a joyless hour or two that’s essentially lost to the sands of time—was a massive drain on my creativity and optimism. Occasionally, I feel guilty for living outside this daily ritual. I don’t take my ability to roll out of bed whenever the hell I feel like it for granted; more often than not, I feel like a cheat, a scoundrel, for having arranged my life in this way. If I’m to fully understand the world as a journalist and capture that understanding in my writing, it’s important to be able to relate to my fellow man.

    I’ve blocked off Saturday as my ‘PC-free day’. Before I made this decision, the laptop was the biggest source of anxiety in my life. I’m not an anxious person but the laptop is the source of my entire income. My mindset was something like, if I’m not using the laptop, I’m not getting paid. I need to get paid to continue living my life outside of the system. Now that Saturday is my PC-free day, I only feel this anxiety six days a week, not seven.

    Ultimately, the fact that I live and work in Brisbane is largely inconsequential. When I’m at home, working, I could be anywhere in the world. All I need is my laptop, a sturdy desk, a strong internet connection, a comfortable chair, and loud speakers. Everything else is a bonus. With those five components in place, I’m content.

    Brisbane is convenient. I know a lot of people here. There are a lot of stories to be told here. I don’t have enough experience living elsewhere to compare Brisbane’s creative communities to any another. But I know from experience that Brisbane is a fine place for a freelance journalist to call home.

    For more Stilts, visit their website. Thanks to editor Katia Pase for inviting me to write.