gem higgnins desk

the writing desk | Gem Higgins | Writer of STUFF

by | The Writing Desk

“You bleed onto the page. Remember you only have so much blood to spill.” I used to destroy myself writing.…

Hello, 

Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog. 

Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say? 

“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce… 

gem higgins: writer of stuff

gem higgins headshot

Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin… 

Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)

My desk is too small for a business book at the moment but when I move into my new place Mark Denton’s ‘Power of Puerility’, Michael Johnson’s ‘Now Try Something Weirder’, James Victore’s ‘Feck Perfunction’, Marcus John Henry Brown’s ‘A Wicked Pack of Cards’ and Amanda Montell’s ‘Wordslut’ will probably find their way there. Ooh and Aaron James Draplin’s ‘Pretty Much Everything’ because it’s pure, unadulterated logo porn. Utter filth, that book.

What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?

So you’re going to kill me here but I don’t do definitive favourites. At least not without a very specific context: everything from the sub-genres within the genre to where I am, how I’m doing emotionally, what’s preoccupying my mind at the time and how fucked my attention span is as a result. My mind has a baseline of about a million miles per hour (think hummingbird half a flap away from full-on cardiac arrest against a flower) so in order to connect with something I need there to be a proper hefty click. And even then, I’ll probably still end up with a list that covers every eventuality (and nuance within it) that’s humanly possible.  

That said, those Refuge poems were fucking brilliant. And I will never not cry at Monty the Penguin. HIS LITTLE FACE! Sorry, you expected something far more original and insightful than that didn’t you?

“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?

Write about something you love. Something that makes you learn; makes you think. Something you geek out on; you obsess over. Read. Read more. Write more. Don’t compare your writing to that of others. You can only write what you write. And try not to have a nervous breakdown in the process.  

If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?

First? Jesus, this is an impossible question. The SCA reading list is good because it introduces you to a load of authors whose back-catalogues you then want to ravage, although I’m not sure it’s still online. Gary Provost’s ‘100 Ways To Improve Your Writing’ is a pocket rocket of a writing wingman and Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’ almost feels like a rite of passage. ‘Page Fright’ by Harry Bruce is a delicious deep dive into the weird and wonderful world of process, but the book that’s hands down made the biggest impact on my writing is Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Consider This’. Which on reflection is also the answer to your first question. Damn that book is good. Fuck you ‘On Writing’. Sorry, Stephen. 

Silence? Radio? Or music while you work? 

It really depends what I’m writing, and if I’m proofing or editing, because I need music or silence for that. I have podcasts on pretty much continuous play when I’m not writing or reading so I often replay those on low like some sort of speaky whitenoise. I love being surrounded by stories. I’m fascinated by what it means to try to be human and function in the world while you’re trying to navigate that. Bloody hell I went a bit deep there, didn’t I? Mostly I write to music. My superbly talented friends Murray Calder and James Caig curate the best tunes and the #Sunday7Social playlists are on regular replay. I love discovering new (or rediscovering old) music and it never fails to blow my mind with what Spotify pulls up when you let them run on.

What are your top three novels of all time – and why?

Nope. Nope. Nope. No top threes either. I’ve never really been one for novels, but American Psycho is timeless. The descriptions are flawless. And it fascinates me because it’s so effortlessly brilliant but everything Easton Ellis wrote after was utter shite. Bizarre. Evidently, he had a book in him. ‘Fight Club’ is exquisitely written, and Deborah Levy’s ‘Hot Milk’, well…FUCK. ME. Ooh and Raphael Bob-Waksberg (of ‘Bojack Horseman’ fame)’s ‘Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory’. Not a novel, but just a beautiful little book. If I can shoehorn in an autobiographical novel then ‘Chelsea Girls’ by Eileen Myles. WOW. 

I’m non-fiction whore by trade. Journalism. Memoirs. Raw, visceral narratives that bond you irrevocably with the writer. Writing that breaks you down and reconnects you with the rough, complex nature of humanity. Stuff that makes you ugly cry and drop your book in the bath and need a lie down because it just punched you straight in the face without apologising. I’ve read so many of these in the past 12 months. Too many to name, so I’ll rather lazily direct you to my website (where I record every single book I read because I’m anal like that) and just tell you the last three (because as a writer you’re legally obliged to be obsessed with threes) that did the full-on ugly cry wet book sorry not sorry face punch thing to me, which are ‘Widow Basquiat’ (as in Jean-Michel) by Jennifer Clements, ‘Devotion’ by Patti Smith and ‘Coming Undone’ by Terri White. 

What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?

I guess the most notable thing I’ve ever written is Sit. Fucking. Still, but a couple of my newsletters (The Rose Hand Files – a pithy, ‘pants-left-in-wash’ ode to Nick’s Red, why of course you can have the link) have really moved me when I’ve read them back. I always wanted to write stuff that would touch people, even help them, and it seems a shame to put over 20 years of therapy to waste. Although for a review of a wine tour (yes, yes I was paid to go on a wine tour and write about it. Those were the days…) in particularly hipster part of East London I snuck in “At the tube, a pigeon nonchalantly pecked at a charcoal-activated croissant” and almost two years later I’m still laughing at that. That said, by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written was a tweet about Paul Rudd being a gift to humanity. Almost 300 likes. We really don’t deserve that man.  

What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts. 

A car. An actual car. Oh, and a butternut squash. Unrelated. 

Who was your teenage crush?  

Natasha Lyonne (of ‘OITNB’ and ‘Russian Doll’) in ‘American Pie’. Portia di Rossi and Lucy Lui in ‘Ally Mc Beal’ (incredibly generous to the lesbian market, that show). Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus. Tori Amos, ‘Cornflake Girl’ era. Fierce wild women with big wild hair. Some things never change. Whose posters did I have on my walls as a teenager? Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith. Tell that to my therapist “Oh. And you’re now a writer…” Explains a lot, really. 

What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?

Côtes de Provence. All. Year. Round. And a damn fine Margarita. My #lockdown3 goal was to master them. Reader: I succeeded. 

IF I WERE TO GIVE YOU A PRIVATE JET, DAVID ATTENBOROUGH AS A TOUR GUIDE AND A MONTH OFF WORK – ALL EXPENSES PAID – WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT OR WHO WOULD YOU WRITE ABOUT – AND WHY?

Robin Hood Island. Although I’d be so ridiculously overexcited I’d probably return with a notebook with ‘PENGUIN’ scrawled on repeat across the pages. I took a selfie with a penguin for my 30th birthday and it remains one of my most prized possessions. Don’t tell my dog. 

What’s in your pockets? 

Pyjamas don’t have pockets. We should probably move on.  

Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?

Keyboard and screen. iPhone notes, Google docs and I’ll often use Social Bee for editing as I do a lot of copy for the socials. But trying to squeeze stuff into a tweet, Instagram or LinkedIn post is just generally a great way of culling unnecessary shit. Rob Estrentinho told me he’d started making sure each paragraph in his newsletter could be tweeted. One hell of a writing hack, that. 

Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on desk and recycle?)

Lots. Too many, if I’m honest – I should probably unsubscribe from the ones I’ve fallen out of love with at some point. #Write52 deserves a special mention for the incredible job Ed Callow did uniting the freelance writing community. As do the following (in no particular order) for just being consistently fucking brilliant. And in no way because all but one are written by my infuriatingly talented friends.  

Told you I loved me a list. Oh, and of course ‘The Red Hand Files’. Nick Cave’s writing is majestic. 

Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?

Coffee. Black. Decaf. Which quite frankly tastes exactly like I’d imagine poison to taste. 

Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it? 

What is it with all the goddamn favourites, woman? No, although I like a big, hefty bowl of a mug so I can hold it round the bottom like I’m Ted Danson’s character in ‘Three Men And A Little Lady’. What a film. I have a lush set of espresso mugs from Oliver Bonas that I adore but never use as I neither own an espresso machine or trust myself not to damage them. I’m so clumsy, I break everything. Which is precisely why I should not be allowed nice things. The car will be written off within a week. 

What was your most adored children’s book? And character?

I actually didn’t read all that much as a kid, I just wrote. All the time. My dad used to make up stories and I used to sleep wearing headphones with Fantastic Mr Fox playing on cassette because the creaking on our landing was absolutely fucking terrifying. But I’ve read more children’s books as an adult. ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klasson and Amy Kean’s ‘The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks’ are both masterclasses in storytelling. And Charlie Mackesy’sThe Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse’ is probably one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I sobbed through the entire thing. It’s perfect. 

Your favourite word?

Now that’s one thing I actually can be definitive on. But it’s cunt. So, you probably can’t put that in. I love a good pootle (no doubt a nostalgic association with ‘The Flumps’), but it’s no cunt. Yeah, you definitely can’t put that in. 

(Addendum KW: Having screamed this word at the stage in three versions of The Vagina Monologues, and cried with laughter at Dianne West in Sisters with her “cuntingly disappointed” we’re keeping it. And celebrating it. If it worked for D.H. Lawrence…”)

Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”? 

My utter disdain for ‘lol’ is somewhat widely known. Yes, it’s actually a word now. As is totes. As is OMG. But as is badassery, so the modern Dictionary hasn’t gone entirely to shit. Yet. 

Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore? 

Online. You know how it is, global pandemic etc. 

Favourite song lyric of all time? And why? 

I can certainly tell you my worst one. Actually, it’s not one lyric, it’s the entire lyrics of Lukas Graham’s ‘7 Years Old’. Equal parts “No shit, Sherlock” and “I’m not quite sure you’ve grasped the whole concept of time.” So, so bad. 

Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.

Literally anything would get me up on the dance floor right now. Anything.  

Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?

Nah, just the usual 3am – 5am insomnia window in which I write my most powerful, prophetic stuff only to wake up to the longest, most unintelligible iPhone note that has ever been written. 

What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?

You’re the second interview I promised I’d do and then never did that I’m finally actually doing today, and there’s one more to go before I can reward myself with some proper work. Which, today, will be social content. Then yoga, PT (socially distanced, of course), a bit of reading and potentially I’ll attempt my newsletter. The hoop will come out. I’ve started to hoop and I’m OBSESSED with the hoop. I’ll probably buy another throw cushion I can’t afford. My new place is going to be 85% throw cushion. 

Can you describe the last photograph you took?

Law of averages says it’ll be one of three things: a glass of wine, a book or the dog.  

*Checks.  

Oh. No, it was a pepper I stuck googly eyes on. I’m 35 years old. 

What piece of advice really changed you as a writer? 

“You bleed onto the page. Remember you only have so much blood to spill.” I used to destroy myself writing. I’ve learned to put myself back together doing it instead. 

What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?

Invariably the answer to this is a tweet.  

*Checks.  

Yep. Scientists have taught spinach to send emails and I just don’t have the energy for this shit. 

What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing? 

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – yes it is Jodi Picoult, John Bizzell. Damn you.  

HARSH WRITING ADVICE on the Twitters the other day unearthed some gems: “Writing is vampiric. Writing is a long walk in a thick fog with a pen light. Writing is a squeezing fist and you are the unpeeled orange.” – @AriWRees I feel SEEN. 

Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?

I’ve never watched it, but for, erm, obvious reasons it would be whoever Christina Hendricks plays. I don’t watch much TV, and series require huge commitment. Unless you catch me at exactly the right time, in exactly the right mood (or you’re Schitt’s Creek), I disengage pretty quickly. Although if I can name my favourite Draper, it’s the good doctor Ryan Wallman. An absolute gent, that man.  

Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?

I’m not a massive film buff – I’m far more into documentaries. ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ was incredible. ‘Casting Jon Benet’ remains up there. ‘McQueen’. ‘Iris’ is one of my absolute favourites – what a woman. I was counting the seconds until ‘The Great Hack’. ‘Fyre Festival’. That Bros documentary. ‘Somme’. ‘7 Days Out’. ‘Miss Americana’. The new one about Madeleine McCann. WHAT. THE. FUCK. Someone’s got to be making one about the Prince Andrew interview. I sincerely hope it’s Michael Spicer. Oh hell and I watched ‘Dear Zachary’ the other day…I’m still broken.

Recently I’ve been rewatching some of my cult big loves. ’Fight Club’, ‘Momento’, ‘The Machinest’, ‘American Psycho’ (which holds up as both a book and a film), ‘Goodfellas’, all the Tarantinos, ‘Casino’, ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, ‘The Big Short’. I fell down a ‘The Birdcage’ gif rabbit hole the other day and had to watch it again immediately. ‘My Cousin Vinny’ is an absolute classic. Marisa Tomei is a goddess. ‘A League Of Their Own’, ‘Thelma and Louise’. Ooh, ‘Overboard!’ Hawn at her most iconic.  

I can’t resist a good horror. Proper twisted shit and psychological headfuckery. ‘Would You Rather’, ‘Escape Room’, that sort of thing. Feel free to judge.   

‘True Story’. Jonah Hill is superb and the twist is phenomenal. ‘Beautiful Boy’ is the truest depiction of addiction I’ve ever seen. ‘Spotlight’ and ‘Dark Waters’ are peak Ruffalo.  

Oh, and I finally saw ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ last week and I NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ABOUT ‘THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI’. 

So, erm, no. No, I can’t. 

Which book or books is/are by your bed today? 

Wintering’ by Katherine May (thank you kindly for the recommendation, my lovely) because I simply can’t bear to finish it. Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’. ‘I Wanna be Yours’ by John Cooper Clarke. I tend to have three on the go at any one time. Which sounds far sexier than it is. 

Who was or is your greatest teacher?

My Media Studies lecturer at college. Absolute diamond of a man. Could chat gangster films with him for hours and we often did. ‘Dead Poets Society’ style. Oh look, another film. 

Who is your favourite artist? 

Yayoi Kusama is one of my two muses (the other being Iris Apfel). I adore proliferative, immersive stuff – massive sculpture and installations with a million and one components. Cornelia Parker. Louise Bourgeois. Chihuly. Gilbert + George. Koons. One of Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions is “If you could steal any piece of art from a gallery, what would you steal” and I’d take three of Jeff’s finest: the balloon monkey for outside the front door (in this scenario there’s space for that), the big bowl of eggs for my front room and the hanging lobster-dolphin combo for my garden. The perfect inflatable threesome.   

Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens? 

I have a teeny tiny desk (read: side table with a drawer) at my parents’ house where I’m currently locked down which does the job at the moment. It’s in front of a window. Where I am doesn’t really matter, as long as I’m in front of a window. In my new place I’ll have an entire office. It overlooks the garden. It has a balcony. I’m literally living the freelance dream. Just without the work I need to fund it. Anyone need a writer? 

gem higgnins desk

And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you? 

@gemmyred for the gifs. @poemsandasausage for the filtered photos of books and the dog. @emailthe27th for a Medium account that earns me approximately £0.44 a month. And gem higgins for the single (semi) professional photo of me in existence that makes me look far more amiable than I actually am.  

Written By Katherine

Katherine Wildman is a copywriter for creative agencies and multinational brands – and the Creative Director of Haydn Grey.

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