This week’s interview is with journalist and blogger Finbarr Bermingham, who as well as having a highly memorable name, is also a great writer as can be seen from his blog. Finbarr is a fellow contributor to The Skinny, a Scottish culture and listings magazine which we have both written for many times in the past.
Below he talks about setting a creative routine and sticking to it, how exercise helps with clarity, taking risks to get yourself out of a rut, and how progress is a great indicator of success.
Hi Finbarr! Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re up to?
I am a freelance journalist and occasional blogger from Northern Ireland, masquerading as a teacher in South Korea. I’ve been writing since my schooldays but started to take it seriously when living in Edinburgh, doing pieces for The Skinny about five years ago.
I then spent some time in Brighton, where I gained NCTJ accreditation. Having huffed and puffed in the UK, trying in vain to earn a crust, I decided a new strategy was required and set off for South Korea about a year ago. At the moment, I spend my evenings as an ESL teacher and as much time as possible is devoted to writing. I also have a weekly radio slot here in Gwangju (English speaking, of course!).
Until a couple of years ago, all the writing I did was music based. Some of it still is, but it is (and I fear always will be) a labour of love. I’ve made a conscious effort to branch out into travel writing, current affairs, sport and wider cultural issues, to varying degrees of success. I’ve had work published in Asia Times, Irish News, Q, Restaurant Magazine and a fair number of arts publications.
Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?
I always had a nebulous notion of being a writer, but I never challenged myself as to what that actually meant until I was in my twenties. I always liked the idea of journalism and I suppose I thought I would just fall into that line of work… as long as I said I wanted to do it, it would happen.
I drifted through university, fell into an office job and woke up one day realizing I was no closer to becoming a writer than I had been at school.I eventually gave myself a kick up the arse and got the ball rolling, but my strategies have always been short term and my objectives are constantly changing.
Finbarr conducting an interview with one of the world’s leading geologists, Professor Min Huh. Photo by Gyonggu Shin
I’m not a great planner and my actions tend to be based more on circumstance than foresight.I haven’t ever felt like I was working towards one incandescent Holy Grail on the horizon. It’s more getting from A-B, and once I get there, I decide where to go next.
For the past few years, though, I’ve been surer on the general direction in which I’ve been headed, even if the exact route has remained a bit woolly.
Finbarr’s poetically titled blog, Scrawls and Bawls
I think my time here has helped me become more focused, too. I’ve come to realize what I do well and what I don’t. I have always tended to write about what interests me in the hope that it interests others, too. I have been lucky that Korea has given me a whole raft of fresh subject matter that fascinates me and that I’ve landed in the country at a time in which other people are intrigued by it, too. I know this won’t always be the case and that sometimes, I may need to be more accommodating in my writing if I am to make it a career.
Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?
Despite what I said previously, I have consciously made a couple of huge decisions in my life in order to progress my writing. I left a reasonably well paid job and a comfortable life in Edinburgh to return to education in Brighton at a time when steady work seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule. Whilst there were other factors in my coming to Korea, there was a large part of me that viewed it as a creative opportunity. I have certainly become a more creative person as a result.
Recently, I’ve indirectly cut down on things that are counter productive to me being creative and productive. Over the past six months, I’ve gotten into long distance running, a pastime that doesn’t marry too well with steady drinking. I’ve since discovered a kind of structured creativity I never had before. I feel more clear-headed and imaginative… a charge that could never have been pinned on me during my hazy early months here. I formulate a lot of my ideas whilst running now and often have the skeleton of a piece in my head by the time I get to the shower.
I do try to structure my day in order to make the most of it. I’ve learned that I work best when I first wake up. My job starts at 3pm, which gives me ample time to get what I need done in the mornings and early afternoon. Sometimes, I’ll avoid writing emails or speaking to people before I’ve gotten something written… usually something that needs doing, but anything will do. Generally, your thoughts are more interesting at that stage. It took me a while to realize that such a schedule could work for me, but now it’s a routine I treasure.
Finbarr’s interview with The National made The Skinny’s cover in May 2010
How do you define success?
There are different levels of success. I do think that to be paid for doing something creative should be considered success and an achievement, particularly if it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. But that’s not the be all and end all; otherwise most of us would be pretty miserable.
Progression is an indicator of success. At the end of a week, or month, or year; if I can look back on that time and see that I’m further along the line than I was at the start, then it’s a success.
If I get published somewhere new, I’m pleased. If someone independently compliments me on what I’ve done, I’m delighted. It sounds conceited, but unfortunately kind words are too often the currency writers deal in. If something I write provokes discussion, then that too is rewarding.
On a personal level, all of these represent small successes. In the grand scheme of things, success (or my own perception of it) is an evolving entity. Not having an explicit goal means there’s always room for improvement.
What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?
I think technology is essential. I am an irregular blogger, but I think the platform is absolutely vital to any writer. I view my blog as a blank canvas. It’s a space for trialing concepts and ideas – many of them fleeting and inconsistent. Whilst that may not make for a coherent and cognizant body of work, it allows me to articulate thoughts I may not be confident of getting published.
If I want to write something on a whim, at least I know there will always be a home for it. I’ve been told that a blog can act as a real-time résumé for potential publishers and employees, so occasionally, I will direct such folks towards it as well.
I was a latecomer to Twitter, but I use it regularly now too. Not only is it useful as a promotional tool, it’s also an excellent research facility. There is a wealth of information on there waiting to be tapped and it makes me laugh when people are skeptical about it. Sure, it is littered with insignificant platitudes (which anyone who follows me will testify), but if you are selective with who you follow then it is a wonderful resource for journalists.
Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?
The act of writing, itself, is a solitary one. Whilst I have collaborated on a couple of pieces in the past, they’ve always been independently written and magically coalesced by the hand of a higher power! I do, however, enjoy trialing ideas through with others.
I like polling opinions on issues and non-issues alike… sometimes conversations that are months old can come flooding back when I’m writing something. If I’m writing an article that requires primary research, I will obviously speak to a lot of people in the planning stages; but besides that, general, untargeted conversations help me greatly.
Teaching is particularly useful in that regard. Everyday I speak to my students about what’s happening in Korea, be it news, entertainment or sport. Most of them will echo the views they’ve heard over breakfast at home. More often than not, the mood of the people is reflected in their young. When my language skills are basic at best, I’ve found that this rejigging of ‘collaborative learning’ has proven very insightful and mutually beneficial.
Koreanosaurus Boseongensis: front cover of Gwangju News, Dec 2010
Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?
I think it has become increasingly important to me. Gwangju has a few thousand ex-pats, in a city of 1.5million. The community here is close-knit and it’s one of my favourite things about the place. The flipside of it is that it’s very easy to get involved in whatever is happening: the local press, radio and blogs. Amongst the expats, not so many are interested in extra-curricular activities and the ones that are, are thrust together closer still.
Online, I guess it’s useful to have a presence in certain communities, although I would say I am peripheral at most. Monitoring the blogging community in Scotland from afar, I can see that it is growing alongside the arts community exponentially and creating a real online buzz. It’s exciting just to observe and I hope it’s a sign of things to come.
I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – is this something you’ve mastered and do you have any advice on how to maintain this?
I think I have attained some level of consistency, in that I could probably rustle up a decent piece on just about anything given some time. I agree that regular practice is crucial. It’s very easy to get rusty. I have by no means mastered anything, though. I’m not sure that would ever be possible.
I also find that maintaining other areas of your life can have a positive effect on your creativity (writing, for sure). Reading is of paramount importance. I notice that when I haven’t been reading a lot, it comes across in my writing and as such, sometimes have to make a conscious effort to read more. So whilst yes, application can improve consistency, I feel it’s important to make room for other valuable and complimentary pursuits.
As well as really enjoying his work I’m very impressed with the decisions Finbarr has made in order to progress his writing and expand his experiences.
What do you think? Share your thoughts/say hello in the comments!