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… Penny Brazier (also known as @penthemighty), copywriter and content strategist.
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…)
It’s not a conventional business book, but I always go back to Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It dismantles the tortured artist myth, tells us to put our egos aside and keep creating. The advice is intended for artists and writers, but it’s helpful for freelancers too. We should not underestimate the creativity required to run a successful business.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
It’s still the A La Carte kitchen ad from the 80s. As kids in that era we were surrounded by toys that were so clearly for children: baby books, matchbox cars, teddy bears. Then this TV ad appeared that promised to lift us out of our childishness and bestow us with adult-like power to the extent we could make our own parents breakfast in bed. It promised a world beyond the playroom.
Of course I never got one, and you couldn’t really cook bloody beans on it, could you. But I’ll never forget the rapture that descended on me from watching that ad for the first time. Very clever.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
The unglamorous truth about good writing is that it only happens if you keep going. It’s mining, but for words — you need a bit of skill and a bit of luck, but it’s mostly down to graft.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Find other writers and business owners to connect with, learn from and support. Without community my business wouldn’t have lasted its first six months. And if you’re just starting out as a freelancer, read Sarah Townsend’s Survival Skills for Freelancers. Terrifically helpful, wish it had been around when I started out.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Sometimes a bit of ambient post-rock or minimal techno. But mostly silence. Boring!
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
That’s hard to commit to! I love anything that explores the dark side of glitz, so The Great Gatsby has to be up there. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon for its brilliant prose and New York (again) and I recently read Three Women by Lisa Taddeo which was devastating and made me question everything about how we define female desire and sexuality.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
Secret stories that will never see the light of day. I like having the freedom to perform without an audience. The audience are probably quietly relieved too.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Shoes for my children that were too big “and I don’t like rainbows mummy”.
Who was your teenage crush?
Keanu. It has always been Keanu.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I’d love to tell you about a romantic trip to a Michelin starred restaurant or eating pineapple on a beach in some far-flung paradise, but it was probably a pub lasagne and chips eaten after a full weekend out on the rave circa 2005.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
I do like a nice bottle of wine but I’ll sell my soul for a margarita.
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?
I find human reactions to the natural world fascinating, so we’d track down some people who were tracking down something rare and beautiful, like an almost-extinct eagle or a snow tiger, and observe their awe and obsession. When we become fixated on external beauty and power like that, we’re always searching for something within ourselves, so I bet they’d have some great stories. I love animals but ultimately we’re the strangest and most intriguing species of all, aren’t we? Obviously me and Sir Dave would take a week off at the end to lie on a beach and drink margaritas.
What’s in your pockets?
Nothing – new jeans!
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Keyboard. Or phone. Writing by hand these days just upsets me, it reminds me of how bad my handwriting has become.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
Cole Schafer’s Sticky Notes email on copy and marketing is one of the few newsletters I read regularly. And not a magazine or a blog, but I follow Bianca Bass on Instagram, who talks an awful lot of sense about writing for business.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Buckets of tea, coffee when needed.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
A large seafoam green coffee cup bought for me by my sister-in-law. One of those gifts where I thought “oh hell, we don’t need ANY more mugs in this house”, then it turned out I would happily put all the others in the bin and just keep this one. It’s the perfect colour, size, shape, weight and style.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
The Moondial, by Helen Cresswell. I love a good ghost story.
Character-wise, it’s got to be Nancy Drew. I’ve always aspired to her intrepidness and “titian hair”. As a kid, you think of Nancy Drew as being a cool go-getter but as you get older your realise she’s actually a bit of a weird outsider. What kind of teenager spends her time solving crimes instead of getting drunk behind the bike sheds?
Your favourite word?
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
My footloose days of idle browsing are long gone, book shop visits tend to consist of me saying ”shhh!” and “put that back!” on repeat. Although I was quietly proud of the day my eldest child found a David Bowie biography in Waterstones and held it aloft so my 3 year son, on the other side of the shop, could see it, whereupon he shrieked “DAVID BOWIE!” so loudly and excitedly that everyone turned around to glare at us. Pretty sure that means we’ve brought them up ok.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
“I tip on alligators and little rattlesnakers/but I’m another flavour/something like a Terminator” – Janelle Monáe, Tightrope. This whole song is such an anthem of defiance about doing your own thing your own way and not listening to your detractors. I love Janelle, she’s an inspiration. Her music, her activism, her style. I don’t believe in having idols these days, but I’ll make an exception for her.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
I love music in all its forms but it has to have a bit of a groove to get me dancing. Janelle, Prince, any old piano house, and Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks, which makes me go all Joan Cusack in School of Rock (i.e. uncool middle-aged woman lets loose in a rock bar).
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
At the moment it’s yelling at my kids to shut up.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
At the moment I’m putting together a copywriting workshop that gets people using empathy and the principles of character development to get a better handle on what their ideal customers need to hear.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
I took a picture of a map of Hardwick Hall estate so my best friend and I wouldn’t get lost. We got lost anyway, too busy talking.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
It was from a counsellor during a particularly low point when my first business, in health and fitness, was failing. She asked me what I loved to do more than anything. When I said it was writing she said “then create time to write, and the rest will fall into place.” She was right. I wrote my way out of that particular hole and never really stopped. Writing fixes things for me in a way nothing else seems to. It’s like magic.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A story about an unhappy man who traps a fly under a glass.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” – Toni Morrison.
I could have picked any of Morrison’s quotes but this one stretches me. The trick of showing the edge of a thing or its catalyst or imprint is the key to wonderful, powerful writing in all forms. And it is so hard to get right.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
I love them all, they’re so beautifully expressed. But obviously it’s Peggy.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
The Shining, because I love 1970s films, creepy old buildings and stories that exist on the edge of our deep subconscious fears.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
It’s the leaning tower of Pisa right now. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, On Filmmaking by Alexander MacKendrick, The Free by Willy Vlautin, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk, Ogilvy on Advertising, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, and Danse Macabre by Stephen King which is a wonderful study of horror in popular culture up to the early 1980s and I wish he would write a sequel.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
There’s no way of saying this without it sounding mawkish, but it has to be my children. Feel free to roll your eyes. They have dismantled my ego completely, shown me I’m more resilient than I thought, and taught me to stand up for myself in the face of bullshit (usually theirs).
Who is your favourite artist?
I still don’t really understand art but I love the juxtaposition of certain colours. I went to the Tate as a child and found myself lost in A Bigger Splash by David Hockney. I still love those California swimming pool , shell pink, lagoon blue, pale lemon yellow and terracotta. I can stare at pleasing colour combinations for hours, it’s like meditation.
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?
In my lovingly decorated home office, which has been shared with my husband since lockdown and is now an absolute tip. I’m very tidy on my own, but put me with somebody else and I abandon all hope and start flinging paper on the floor and leaving wrappers everywhere in protest at having my space invaded.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
Find me on Instagram and Twitter at @penthemighty. If you like my words and are a fan of words in general, you can hear from me via my email The Penny Drop which goes out infrequently enough to be a pleasant surprise when it arrives. And my website is here.