Today The Spinoff Book launches itself keenly into the world, replete with many of the best reads from five years of The Spinoff, plus a host of freshly written material and lashings of new illustrations by Toby Morris. Here’s a taste of the new stuff: an essay by the inimitable Madeleine Chapman on her time writing for the site, and the importance of punching up.
The Spinoff Book is available now in all good bookstores.
The worst thing I ever did for a story was attend a Max Key DJ set as a paying VIP guest. It wasn’t physically painful, and nothing bad happened to me. It was the worst because I felt like I had lowered myself for a story.
The golden rule of journalism (at least for The Spinoff and therefore me) is to always punch up. Mock the rich, privileged and powerful all you want, but don’t go after someone just trying to live their life. Did attending a Max Key DJ set in bad faith to then write humorously – and a little nastily – about the experience count as punching up? In the office at the time, the consensus was yes, but I wasn’t convinced, and I didn’t like the task of judging whether someone was deserving of my snark. From then on I committed to punching more of the one person I knew could handle it: myself.
The other reason was that I felt lazy doing it. There’s nothing unique about getting drunk at a gig you’re not interested in simply because a particular guy will be there that you’d like to talk to. That’s a supremely ordinary experience and anyone could’ve gone in my place and written the same story. In fact, a writer from another outlet was there on an identical assignment.
Likewise, anyone could attend an event, or eat vegetarian for a week, or join a gym for a month – literally thousands of people do that every day – but who would ride a single-gear Onzo bike 120 km, or eat only beef for seven days? I would, because that’s how my stupid mind works. And when you find your niche strength, you play to it.
In 2016, lots of people were interested in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and how he got so damned ripped. Far fewer (read: zero) people were interested in finding out for themselves. That’s where I came in. I was 22.
I’d been working at The Spinoff for exactly three months – the first time in my life I’d done a nine-to-five indoors – had just recovered from dengue fever, and was feeling trapped. Sitting at a desk all day staring at the paint peeling from the walls didn’t inspire me to write, it made me wish I could be paid to paint the walls instead.
Living a week as The Rock and spending three hours a day at the gym sounds horrible, and it was, but it got me out of the office and kept me occupied for an entire week. I was happy to suffer the physical pain of lifting weights and waking up at 4.15am if it shook up my routine.
Also it was a huge mistake. I thought it would be six workouts in seven days but running for an hour, eating a cold boiled egg in a parked car at 5.30am, then lifting weights for two hours Monday to Saturday surely counts as 12 workouts and six cold boiled eggs.
By Wednesday I was very tired and every muscle hurt and I didn’t write a single story the whole week because I kept falling asleep at my desk. Almost everyone I complained to suggested that I give up. Except they didn’t say “Give up”, they said “Why are you even doing this?” and “You know you can just stop or cheat and no one would know or care, right?” They said these things and all I heard was “Give up”.
I didn’t give up because I couldn’t. Giving up is boring, both in practice and in print. But then two years later, almost to the day, I gave up while riding an Onzo bike out of Auckland. I wanted to get to Hamilton but I gave up and stopped in Huntly. I figured 120 km still counted as a long enough bike ride to write about.
Before I left, I was showered with encouragement from my colleagues. The kind of encouragement that feels a little bit evil. The only responsible person in the office had a few concerns.
“Have you contacted ACC?”
“To figure out if you’re covered.”
“For if you die.”
I can say this now because it was over a year ago (what’s the statute of limitations on irresponsibility?) but there were some genuinely close calls on that Onzo ride. A couple of inches here, a slower reaction there, and it might have been my last experience.
But that’s exactly why I did it. It was April of 2018. I had completed the first draft of a book manuscript on Valentine’s Day (romantic) and had been working through 2am edits most nights since. Summer had been and gone while I was power napping on a couch at The Spinoff office. All I wanted to do was lie in a field for three days. Instead I pitched a story where I could be outside all day, not looking at my phone or computer. Granted, it didn’t have to be physically exhausting, but I wanted that too. I wanted to tire myself out, literally beyond comprehension, so that my exhausted brain would be forced to shut off for a bit.
It worked. Riding an Onzo bike for 12 hours from Mt Eden to Huntly is the feat people are most impressed by. It was also the best experience I’ve ever had for a story. Of all the things I’ve done, it’s the one I would have done for free, for fun. If you tell your friends that you’re spending your weekend riding a bike to Huntly “just because”, that’s weird and you’re weird. If you tell your friends you’re spending a Thursday riding a bike to Huntly “for a story”, that’s amazing and you’re brave.
No one thought I was amazing or brave when I ate only beef for a week, though. It was the diet of Jordan Peterson, the live-action version of Kermit the Frog who wrote a bestselling self-help book that promised to be different from all the rest but turned out to be just like all the rest, except with weird lobster analogies about monogamy.
Peterson was speaking in New Zealand and I wanted to cover and debate his ideas in a more interesting way. Plus I hadn’t done anything dumb for work in six months. The week was terrible but my skin was so smooth at the end of it. Turns out you can’t get breakouts from eating badly if you basically don’t eat at all. The worst thing was that I had to go to work as usual. I was physically suffering and yet I still had to sit at my desk trying to write all day.
Writing is hard and boring. I thought there would be big moments of accomplishment, like finishing a big feature or sending in the first draft for a book. But those moments are never big because they’re never the end. There’s always something to edit or something to add or complaints to field when someone doesn’t agree. By the time you finally reach the end, it’s dragged on so long the feeling you get is more a weak sense of relief than anything joyous. Physical work ends and it’s actually done.
At midnight on the Sunday of Rock Week I was done. At midnight on the Sunday of Beef Week I was done. The moment I cycled into the parking lot of Z Huntly, I was done. And I’ll remember each of those moments probably for the rest of my life.
Doing physical challenges, albeit ridiculous ones, allows me to experience that sudden rush of accomplishment that I don’t think writing ever will. I get to feel that success and then use it to get through the struggle of actually writing about it.
So that is why the worst experience I ever had for a story was attending a Max Key DJ set as a paying VIP guest. I didn’t do anything, and I gained nothing but a hangover. It’s haunted me ever since. When you Google image search Max Key, I appear on the first page. Twice. I wish only the best for Max, including enough success that I never again appear on his Google search results.
My experiential journalism is spaced out in the same way regular people space out their holidays. Because doing these things is a holiday for me and for my brain. While some may feel pity reading about me lying on the floor of a gym at 4.30am, or wheeling a bike up a random gravel road in the middle of nowhere, their pity is misdirected.
I don’t do these things because I feel like I have to, or because it seems like something people might want to read. I don’t do it because I want to punish myself. I do it because I can and because I like it. I do these things because they make me want to write again.
The Spinoff Book is available now in all good bookstores. Become a Spinoff member, contribute $80 or more, and as well as helping us do more homegrown, independent journalism, you get a free copy.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.