Ruth Dawkins is a Scot currently living in Hobart, Tasmania, with her husband and five year old son. She started DorkyMum in 2011 – when she was still living in Edinburgh – as a creative outlet that she could fit around her life as a stay at home parent.
How did you first become interested in writing? What were your creative influences growing up?
I’ve always been a huge reader, going right back to when I was just seven or eight. I think if you can read you never have an excuse for saying you’re bored – there’s always another world you can escape into – and so I understood how powerful words can be from a very young age.
We had to write short fiction pieces at primary school, which I always enjoyed, and then when I was about 12 I started writing a journal and kept that going for about ten years. But it was probably towards the end of high school that I started to really enjoy writing.
I had a slightly offbeat English teacher in my final year of high school who encouraged our small class to explore poetry and creative writing, and she was hugely supportive of my efforts.
When I went onto university I stayed involved in creative writing for a while before starting to branch out more into student journalism and then finally a few years ago into blogging and freelancing.
I find your range of subjects very interesting — you studied Literature and Art History and then went into environmental campaigning. Which passion came first? Do you see overlaps between the two?
Literature was always the big passion, I love books and reading more than just about anything. (I’ve written about this in depth for a website quite recently!).
But as an Arts Student at Edinburgh University I only had a few hours of lectures each week and so I had plenty of time to get involved in other activities.
I got involved in student journalism, and covering some of the events around campus got me interested in student politics and campaigning. Edinburgh has a long tradition of successful student campaigns on things like ethical investment, fair trade and sustainability, so it was an exciting place to be.
My experiences there were enough to get me a place in the Ben & Jerry’s Climate Change College, and then to secure a job as a full time campaigner with an environmental not-for-profit organization.
I see a lot of overlap between the two interests, and more so all the time thankfully.
The work that climate scientists do is hugely important in terms of giving us a solid body of evidence about what is happening in the world right now, but those scientists are often so focused on research that they don’t have the time or the skills to broadcast their results beyond their own immediate community.
The more people there are who are both passionate about the environment and good communicators the better!
How do you decide what topics to write about? What are your goals for writing?
I carry notebooks everywhere, and am always scribbling things down – ideas that come from nowhere in my head, overheard snippets of conversations, quotes from books that inspire me.
Then when I sit down at the computer each day I flick through them until I find something that I think can be turned into a substantial piece. Sometimes a draft will sit there for months without me ever working on it, other times the words flow more easily and I’ll churn out an almost completed piece on the first attempt.
I keep a list of ideas that I want to pitch, and a list of places I want to pitch to, and try to work through them methodically.
At the moment I don’t make much more than pocket money from freelance writing. I’ve only been doing it full time since the start of the year, when my son started school.
It means I work in fits and starts, getting a lot done in term time, and then nothing at all done during school holidays. I would love to find three or four places that I could rely on for regular work, even if it was just one or two pieces a month. I would love, eventually, to have a book published. And I would like to have a Modern Love column published in the New York Times.
I was going to ask you about how being published in larger publications and receiving rewards for your writing changed your approach to writing. It seems like for some people it really validates their creative path, other people feel like it adds pressure and makes it harder to write, and other people don’t really care one way or another.
Such a good question! It can definitely be both a joy and a challenge when you turn something you love into a job.
I love being paid, obviously, and I always work harder when there is a deadline looming, but it’s a constant struggle for me working out which pieces of writing are ones I should use on my own blog and which are ones I should pitch elsewhere. You have to trust that the ideas will never run out!
When I do paid writing for parenting websites, I always try to produce good work but I don’t find it horribly difficult – I think because I write about parenting so regularly for my own blog I’m quite comfortable in my voice and confident that people will relate to what I’m writing.
In contrast, when I do something more formal – something for a print publication rather than online – I question myself constantly. I find it a real challenge to find the balance between having enough of a voice that you can tell it’s me writing, but not so much of me that it distracts from the point of the piece.
I was recently commissioned to write a piece for the Guardian about two friends of mine who I met when I spent time in the Arctic as part of the Climate Change College. Unfortunately they lost their lives earlier this year in an accident on the ice, and I had to write about their contribution to climate science and campaigning.
It was an honour to be asked, but definitely the most difficult piece I’ve ever had to write because I had to incorporate my own perspective, enough personal details about the guys that readers would get a sense of who they were, and a lot of quite technical scientific information, along with some appropriate quotes from climate scientists who I interviewed. All that in 2000 words!
Who are your favorite writers and/or books?
So many! Since moving from the UK to Australia about 18 months ago I’ve been making an effort to read a lot more books by Australian writers, so Danielle Wood, Favel Parrett, Tim Winton, and Richard Flanagan are all on my bedside table at the moment.
I’ve just read all four of Emily St John Mandel’s books – Station Eleven is the best known – and loved them all. I like everything by Sarah Waters. If I’m missing Scotland I pick up an Alan Warner. I’m a huge poetry fan too – everything from Pablo Neruda to Billy Collins to Edwin Morgan.
I have such a long list of books that I want to read that I’ve had to buy a special notebook to list them all in, but my shelves are already so full that I’ve had to start operating a one-in-one-out policy. I don’t let myself buy a new one until I get rid of an old one.
How has making the move from Scotland to Tasmania changed your outlook?
Scotland and Tasmania are actually very similar in many ways, although the weather is definitely better here! They are both places that punch above their weight in terms of producing creative people, and both places that value their arts sector.
They both have beautiful, inspiring landscapes, and wonderful people, and I try hard to let that strong sense of place come through in my writing. It is very freeing to leave your country and live as an expat though, and I think my writing has become braver since we made our move.
What’s a day in your life look like now?
We always get up at 7am, and from then until 9am I’m in full on family mode, making breakfasts and packed lunches, getting my son ready for school and then dropping him off, dropping my husband off at work… I get home and usually spend from 9-10.30 doing household work, paying bills, tidying, dishes, laundry, grocery shopping and all that dull stuff.
I know that people sometimes raise their eyebrows when I say that our regular work takes that time, but when you are a Scottish-American family living in Australia, the amount of time you have to spend on things like tax returns, bank administration, bills, visa applications and the like is astonishing.
About 10.30am I usually have breakfast, and after that I work at my computer until 2pm That is my time for writing, pitching, submitting, editing, catching up on emails and the like. Then I go and pick my son up from school, and spend the rest of the afternoon playing with him, doing reading homework, making dinner.
Those 3-4 hours in the middle of each day is my work time. It sounds a lot, but it goes so quickly. I aim to blog once a week, spend one day doing edits on old pieces, and two or three days working on new pieces.
What’s the most challenging part of being a freelance writer? What parts do you enjoy most? Feel free to share some highlights.
The thing that has been hardest for me, but also the thing that I’m getting better at is dealing with rejections. I don’t take them personally anymore.
I’ve started to understand that a rejection is the way an editor tells me that one particular piece isn’t a good fit for one particular site, rather than seeing it as a criticism of my overall skill as a writer.
On the plus side, I love working alone so it’s an ideal job for me. I love the flexibility around school hours and holidays, and I love the feeling when I have a piece accepted!
Your husband Dorky Dad, aka Young Dawkins is also a celebrated writer, how has your relationship shaped your approach to writing?
We write very differently – I suppose you’d characterize my writing as feature writing or creative nonfiction, and Young is a poet, but in some ways we’re also very similar.
We both think language is a beautiful thing but we write in a very straightforward and simple way. Neither of us uses big words for the sake of it.
Our favourite thing to do is light the logfire, open a bottle of wine, and sit at the table together all evening, tapping away at our computers and looking up to exchange an occasional smile.
Do you have creative activities you enjoy doing with your son?
It’s such a joy that he’s now at the age where words are starting to make sense to him. He keeps a notebook by his bed and writes his own little stories, and he loves writing letters and cards to our friends and family who are scattered across the world.
He likes to play word games with me, thinking of rhymes, and opposites, and puns. And his favourite thing to do is going to the library to get a stack of a dozen books and then heading home to sit on the sofa and have me read them all to him.
FILL IN THE BLANK
My secret superpower is thinking the best of everyone.
If I could have lunch with any fictional character, I’d choose Mr Darcy.
When I get keys to the magic time machine, I’m going straight for the 60s so I could hang out with my husband when he was at university.
The last book I read was Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. It took me a few chapters to really get into it, because it interweaves the perspectives of three different characters, but I finished it almost a week ago and still keep finding myself thinking about it. It’s an incredible story.
If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a communications officer or campaigner with a charity that focused on the environment or social justice.