Who Got the Gig? James Littlewood: Editor at The Big Idea
Earlier this year The Big Idea advertised for the role of Editor — seeking someone deeply passionate about the creative arts and writing. We received an amazing array of candidates but long-time TBI follower James Littlewood got the nod.
James took time out between juggling the editor inbox and subbing a supplied article to talk on the phone. He spoke exuberantly about his love of the arts, and of the people he has come into contact with throughout his strangely varied career. He describes himself as a storyteller and has used this skill in a range of industries including working as a theatre director, a creative-writing teacher, and even as a corporate ethnographer: yes, it’s a thing.
We're quite reliant on supplied content. While it can take a lot of subbing to get into shape, it's a great way to keep in touch with the community we love. I love getting sent stuff!
What’s the gig?
“It’s basically just a really invigorating environment to work in” James says, before detailing three components to a typical day: getting in touch with talented writers, hustling for story ideas, and helping make those stories happen.
Wrangling the technical and graphic elements on the website - making it easy to read and looking good - is another aspect of the gig, as well as re-posting and promoting stories on TBI's social media. He describes the nature of TBI as having strengths and weaknesses. "We're quite reliant on supplied content. While it can take a lot of subbing to get into shape, it's a great way to keep in touch with the community we love. I love getting sent stuff!"
James’s most recent full-time gig was as a creative-writing teacher at Manukau Institute of Technology. He was very much the “nuts and bolts guy” — teaching literary theory alongside the more serious end of writing skills, such as writing for businesses, the internet, and editing. The job - like many in creative education - met the sharp end of a restructure, but James says he is happy where he is now. “Fair to say” he says, “it’s probably my dream job. I love writing and I love art.” So, good outcome, then.
I love strong opinion, those ideas people have about how the world can be a better, more creative place.
Tips for success
James says the most crucial aspect to succeed as in his editing role is knowing what's going on within the creative community and sniffing out where the story is: “There’s so much going on, and everyone wants to promote their thing. We’d cover it all if we could. But we always have to boil it down to a news angle.” And what might that be? “It’s no set thing, and we’re working hard on increasing diversity. But for us, it’s often about how people got to where they are. And also: I love strong opinion, those ideas people have about how the world can be a better, more creative place.”
It takes a bit of guts to cross that chasm, to contact people, and ask for their hard won tips of the trade.
Other important skills include having a good eye for grammar and punctuation, a preoccupation which is often appreciated by readers, more than writers. “A big part of the gig is editing for accuracy, syntax, clarity and readability. I owe a few drinks around town for over-editing some people. But by large I try to work with what I get.”
James encourages anyone wanting to pursue a similar career to pay less attention to those who tell you that it can't be done. “The biggest mistake I ever made was to listen to my high school careers advisor, who told me to forget about writing. It was a good school, but that literally set me back by years.”
He also urges you to find people who are doing what you do and to get to know them somehow. “It takes a bit of guts to cross that chasm, to contact people, and ask for their hard won tips of the trade.”
I think most people like to think of themselves as being open-minded, it’s a universally agreeable trait, but most people don’t actually have it ... Warwick taught me a lot about working with people; looking beneath the surface and really exploring what people have got to offer. I hope I can do that. I try to do that.
Aspiring to be open-minded
I asked him who influences him, and he immediately identified the theatre director Warwick Broadhead. They met in 1990 when Warwick came to Dunedin and James stage-managed one of his productions. “He was unusually open minded” James says.
“I think most people like to think of themselves as being open-minded, it’s a universally agreeable trait, but most people don’t actually have it. True open-mindedness is actually kind of scary. Warwick certainly had it, and it could be rather confronting.”
James says that one of the things that was at the heart of Warwick’s character was his inclusiveness: he would accept whoever turned up in front him. He never auditioned people for his productions; whoever showed up to rehearsals could be in the show if they wanted to be.
“Warwick taught me a lot about working with people; looking beneath the surface and really exploring what people have got to offer. I hope I can do that. I try to do that.”
James’s other passions
Alongside the Editor gig, James is producing the Going West Poetry Slam this September. Going West is an arts festival located in West Auckland that celebrates New Zealand writing and performance.
He also recently finished a micro-documentary for The Wireless/Radio New Zealand called The Forest of Tiriwa. It explores the issues surrounding kauri dieback disease with a particular focus on a rāhui introduced by the iwi Te Kawerau a Maki, to help control the disease within the Waitakere ranges.
“It’s an issue that has polarised a lot of people and I wanted to explore the rāhui from the point of view of the iwi itself, because it is a very important part of it.”
It’s not like my life, which is a sort of haphazard tapestry of mad ideas. But it’s inspiring, and I try to apply that philosophy where I can.
On innovation and self-discipline
One of James’s favourite films is Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary directed by David Gelb. “it’s a film about sushi” he says, “but really, it’s about innovation.” This is something he speaks knowledgeably about. “Everyone’s always like, innovation has to be massive. But it doesn’t. It’s often an incremental process. Things get better over time.” In the film, Jiro Ono is an 85-year-old sushi master who owns a tiny sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway, often booked out months in advance. Says James: “He just does the same thing, day in, day out, and gets better at it, day in, day out. Rice. Nori. Fish. Rice. Nori. Fish.” I can hear him tapping the phone as he speaks. “It’s not like my life, which is a sort of haphazard tapestry of mad ideas. But it’s inspiring, and I try to apply that philosophy where I can.”
“Jiro does the same thing every day and each day it is microscopically better than the day before… There’s a lot to be said about discipline, about doing it as much as you can. You can only get better that way. There's no substitute.”
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For 15 years The Big Idea has helped creatives find work and opportunities in New Zealand and arts organisations and creative companies find the right people.
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