How to Write

a writer, writing

I teach a Popular Criticism class to MFA students. I don’t actually have an MFA, but I am a professional, full-time writer who has been in this business for almost two decades, and I’ve written for a wide range of impressive print and online publications, the names of which you will hear and think, “Oh fuck, she’s the real deal.” Because I am the real deal. I tell my students that a lot, like when they interrupt me or roll their eyes at something I say because they’re young and only listen when old hippies are digressing about Gilles Deleuze’s notions of high capitalism’s infantilizing commodifications or some such horse shit.

Anyway, since Friday is our last class, and since I’m one of the only writers my students know who earns actual legal tender from her writing — instead of say, free copies of Ploughshares — they’re all dying to know how I do it. In fact, one of my students just sent me an email to that effect: “For the last class, I was wondering if you could give us a breakdown of your day-to-day schedule. How do you juggle all of your contracted assignments with your freelance stuff and everything else you do?”

Now, I’m not going to lie. It’s annoying, to have to take time out of my incredibly busy writing schedule in order to spell it all out for young people, just because they spend most of their daylight hours being urged by hoary old theorists in threadbare sweaters to write experimental fiction that will never sell. But I care deeply about the young — all of them, the world’s young — so of course I am humbled and honored to share the trade secrets embedded in my rigorous daily work schedule. Here we go:

Today, I woke up at 4 a.m. because one of my dogs was making a strange gulping sound. I sat for several minutes listening closely, wide awake, wondering if she wasn’t developing esophageal cancer or some other gruesome ailment that the pricey animal specialty hospital might guilt me into actually treating. I imagined sitting in the posh chill of their giant waiting room, the pricey coffee and tea machine humming away next to me, filling out forms instructing them to never crack my 10-year-old dog’s chest and do emergency open heart surgery if she starts coding. “Option 1: LET MY DOG DIE.” That’s one I had to check off and sign, over and over again, when my other, eight-year-old dog had an unexplained fever and it cost me $6000 to save her. The vet’s eyes would dart over my forms and the corners of her mouth would pinch slightly, and then she’d treat me like someone who might just yank the IV out of her dog’s leg and twist her neck at any minute, the Jack Bauer of budget-minded dog owners.

Anyway, right about now you’re starting to understand why the morning hours are so potent for a working writer: The mind spills over with expansive concepts and sweeping images that just cry out to be tapped in another scintillating essay or think piece.

Rather than get up and spoil my inspired revelry, though, I know to let these thoughts swirl and churn until they take a more coherent shape. My mind soon shifts to tallying up the costs of college for my stepson, who for some nutty reason applied to a wide range of insanely expensive private colleges on the East Coast. After I marvel over that sum for a while, I try adding together his costs with the costs of sending my two young daughters to college in ten years. Then I think about how we should probably try to pay off our credit cards and our home equity loan first, and THEN focus on coming up with this mammoth amount for college, and then of course we’ll be retiring right after that but we’ll still have 15 years left on our massive mortgage. “We’re never going to retire,” I think. “We’re going to have to keep working forever and ever and ever. And we can’t turn on the AC this summer. And we have to stop going out to our favorite Mexican restaurant every other week and drinking margaritas, which are an inexcusably expensive indulgence.” Old people problems, LOL.

Then I think about margaritas for a while. I think about how there should really be a breakfast margarita. Breakfast ‘Rita. Breakarita. Sunrise ‘Rita. Maybe with Chia seeds. I think about how I worked at Applebee’s when I was my stepson’s age. And he’s never even had a job. Ever! I think about how weird that is, that he’s never had a job, but he’s applying to colleges that cost $250k, all told. YOLO, I guess.

Then I think about how my black Applebee’s polo shirt always smelled like nachos because I didn’t wash it often enough. See how I was thinking about a smell? That’s how you know I’m a real artist and not some fucking hack who writes light verse for The New Yorker. Artists can conjure a stinky odor using only their raw powers of imagination and long-term memory. That’s also how you know it’s time to write.

By now, it’s 5:30 a.m. I get up and tiptoe past the kids’ rooms, put water on for tea, and swiftly unload the dishwasher. Ahead of the curve, motherfuckers! I high-five myself in my mind. (It’s important, as an artist, to reward yourself whenever you do something right. Your life can’t be all “You suck, work faster, you’re falling behind!”)

By 5:45 a.m., I am sitting down to write. First, though, I need to fire off an email to the editor of my weekly advice column about maybe getting a check soon since it’s May and I haven’t been paid yet this year. “HEY IS THERE A CHECK ON THE WAY FINALLY? LOL! THIS BIG GUY WITH A BASEBALL BAT AT MY FRONT DOOR WANTS TO KNOW! OMG MY KNEES! XXXOOO” Always be super-polite and light-hearted with your editors, and never give them any indication that you’ve been waiting for a check for so long and your credit card balances are getting so high that your pulse starts racing every time you think about it, so much so that you’ve started to soothe yourself by imagining choking the life out of their ineffectual shit faces with your bare hands. Lol.

At 6 a.m., I quit email because that’s what writers do if they want to get some motherfucking writing done. But I have to go on Twitter for a second to favorite a few of my editor’s tweets so he’ll know that I’m not mad or anything. It’s so easy for people to think that you’re full of rage when you’re a woman and a writer and oldish and you never, ever get paid! Ignorant dummies. Then I reply to a youngish writer who just moved to LA and hates her job and hates LA and is panicking. “Remember you’re having an adventure!” I tell her, because she’s young and she probably doesn’t have dogs with health problems yet. So then I end up scrolling through my Twitter feed, probably just to remind myself that all of these other writers don’t have 8,204 followers like I do, because I’m so fucking esteemed and accomplished after having done this for almost two decades. I’m a professional, is the thing. I know my fucking shit. I just keep producing high-quality work. That’s why I have 8,202 followers.

Hold on. Where did those two followers go? Was it the thing I wrote about having an adventure? That probably made me sound really old. I probably shouldn’t be so upbeat or urge people to have adventures. You’re not old yet, guys, but you should remember this for when you get older: DON’T EVER WRITE THINGS THAT IMPLY THAT YOU’RE OLD.

At 6:15 a.m., my five-year-old wakes up. “Can I play on your iPad?” she asks. “That’s not how we start the day,” I reply. “We don’t do dumb things like that to start the day, ever.”

At 6:25 a.m. I am checking out the Twitter page of some teenager who makes YouTube videos about fashion. Someone tell me, how is that a thing? Her profile page bio line says “My viewers are my besties and I love them 5ever.” She has 1.43 million
followers. I would write something here about how making YouTube videos and assuring 1.43 million strangers that they’re your besties 5ever is probably much more lucrative than, I don’t know, teaching teenagers how to write and recapping “Mad Men” at midnight. But I’m a professional fucking writer and a true artist, not a teenager in leopard print rollerskates. LoL.

At 6:55 a.m., I have to start my 5-year-old’s breathing treatment for her cold and make both kids a kale smoothie so they don’t die of scurvy or rickets. The rest of the morning passes in a blur.

7:01 a.m. OK, it’s not really a blur at all. But you should never, ever detail your domestic chores or rail off the cute things your kids say unless you’re Louis fucking CK. If you’re a woman, forget it. People will think you’re a mommy blogger, which is bad, because it’s a woman thing. Suffice it to say, there’s lots of screwing little rubbery straws into little cup lids and struggling to keep the dirty laundry piles from mixing with the clean laundry piles. In the end, the kids looked fresh and beautiful and ready for the day and I looked like a bedraggled, angry old whore. Or sex worker. YAAASS! (Is that how you spell it?)

8:45 a.m. Back from dropping off the kids, and ready to write! Except I definitely have to exercise first. It’s going to be 90 degrees out there today and the dogs need to run and I don’t want to kill them — or worse, maim them and then decline chest-cracking at the billion-dollar emergency dog cancer spa.

I know you think I should skip the exercise, and get straight to work already. That shows how much you know. OK, listen the fuck up for once: If there’s one thing you must do as a highly esteemed professional freelance beggar, it’s exercise. Otherwise you will sit and stew in your schlubby juices all day. You’ll pull up Grantland and read a TV review that’s pure brilliance, delightful and peppy, and you’ll think about the fact that you should’ve been a teenage fashion guru making videos on YouTube but you were born at the wrong fucking time so now you have… 8,201 Twitter followers instead of 1.43 million. And you never actually get paid like that high-fashion fuck does.

9:20 a.m. Leaving house for run with dogs. High-five!

10:20 a.m. Hydration. Crucial. As Al Swearengen from Deadwood once said, “Those that doubt me suck cock by choice.” Actually, not sure if it was Swearengen or that grisly looking dude, what was his name?

10:40 a.m. I go to look up that quote, because: fact-checking, hellooo! Every good freelance person fact-checks everything religiously. Clean, error-free copy is how you get the high-end writer gigs, and it’s also how every editor contacts you all the time and asks you to read a 500-page book and write 2000 words for a $300 check you’ll receive four months later. Boo-ya! See, when you’re an acclaimed critic and a fucking pro, you get paid $40k a year to do complicated theme-paper type assignments, instead of paying $40k a year. So there! See ya, wouldn’t wannna be ya!

11:15 a.m. This is lunch time, because I woke up at 4 a.m., remember? And I can’t just eat a few slices of cheese and bread, because that’s not brain fuel. Brain fuel is kale, and you have to chop kale up and then massage it with lemon juice and honey for a long time, so it’s not prickly and bitter, and then you add shallots (also chopped) and pine nuts (toasted). Those that doubt me suck cock by choice. (See how I used that Swearengen line again, as a callback? If you work really hard and write every day for two decades, this kind of stuff will just spring into your mind.)

12:00 p.m. I read an article about South Korea ferry accident. Feel depressed. This is my humanity I’m getting in touch with, so it’s important.

12:30 p.m. I clean up the mess from lunch, still feeling depressed. Feeling feelings is a crucial part of the professional writer’s day. You’ll never write anything worthwhile if you don’t feel your feelings. Also, you always have to clean up your messes, because as the day progresses it gets harder to write, and when you see a big mess in the kitchen that can be super disheartening if you’re already struggling to put words onto the fucking page.

1:05 p.m. Finally time to write! This is when I pull up the piece I’m working on about BuzzFeed and John Updike and the enforced cheer of American pop culture. This piece is the fucking shit, is what I’m thinking as I’m reading it. When it’s ready, it is going to blow some high-falutin’ editor socks clean off.

1:25 p.m I decide I should really read this Updike biography from cover to cover right now if I want this essay to be worth reading.

1:55 p.m. I stop myself! Because I’m not writing, and this is my time to write. Remember this one thing, even if you forget everything else: WRITERS WRITE. If you’re not writing, you’re not a fucking writer. I am a writer, so I write every fucking day. So I open the piece and…

1:56 p.m. I realize I have to finish that review of “American Idol” because it’s due this afternoon. And honestly, at first it’s hard to write the review, because that other essay is going to be way better. But then, when I start to write about how J. Lo always says she’s “getting goosies” when she likes someone’s singing? Well, that’s the kind of little detail you just know to include when you’re a former full-time professional TV critic like I am. I’m in the zone, too. THIS IS WHY I WRITE, I tell myself. FOR THIS FEELING RIGHT HERE. I AM FEELING IT TODAY! HIGH-FIVE!

2:23 p.m. Time to go get the kids from school.

3:30 p.m. The kids are doing their homework now, so you probably think this is a good time to write. WRONG. I’m too tired, and if I try to write AND answer their incessant fucking questions, I’ll start to say things like “Please don’t talk to me,” and “Please shut up,” and “Don’t look at me right now.” And sure, there are people out there who are thinking, “Christ, Heather, YOU ARE THE REAL DEAL. The world needs more of your fine prose and insights, not less. If you need to tell the kids to fuck off, then do it. If not for them, then for HUMANITY.”

And I do care about humanity. The people of the world matter to me at a deeper level than most, because I’m a true artist and I’m sensitive. But here’s the truth: It bums ME out to tell my kids to fuck off. Weird, right? But I need to be available to them. So I’m playing Candy Crush instead.

3:45 p.m. My 7-year-old asks me a question and I tell her, “I’M ON A TIMED LEVEL, HERE! GIVE ME ONE MINUTE!” and then “NO, STOP TALKING! TIMED LEVEL! A TIMER IS TICKING DOWN! ONE MINUTE ONE MINUTE!”

4:04 p.m. A confession? I fucking hate Candy Crush once you get past the Minty Meadow. It’s too hard, but there’s no skill involved. It’s at once incredibly tedious and taxing, and yet there’s very little reward for it. You try and try and try and try and you work and work and work and you tell the whole goddamn world to go fuck itself, and you know what you have to show for it in the end? A fucking headache. You have the illusion of accomplishment, but really? You aren’t doing shit. You’re pretending that you’re accomplishing something, that’s all.

What do you mean, is that a metaphor?

4:35 p.m. I’m making myself a margarita but it’s not what you think. I’m doing this so I’m not a total jerk when my husband walks in the door. My husband has a real job, FYI. He’s an awesome guy and he also keeps the lights on around here, just in case you were saying to yourself, ‘WTF? How do the fucking lights stay on, because even with her being the real deal and all, she never seems to get paid or anything?” Have to be cheery, for the breadwinner! Booze.

4:55 p.m. I should add that tequila is a very important part of surviving life as a big-deal professional writer. You don’t believe that now, but you will later. I am having some great ideas right now that I would never have without the tequila, and I’m tweeting them all so I don’t forget a thing.

5:19 p.m. OK. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “This person is kind of an asshole. If I become a professional writer, I won’t be so discombobulated and distracted and self-hating.” That’s what I used to think about my creative writing teacher in college, who always said depressing things about her life and had uncombed hair and a tote bag filled with crumpled papers. I thought she was old and weird and wishy-washy about the whole world, her kids, everything. But I had coffee with her last year, and I realized that she wasn’t even old back then, and besides, we have so much in common! Anyway, time for another margarita.

6:35 p.m. Husband got home. Hi babe. Mmm so fucking tired. I know, I DO work too hard.

7:15 p.m. Use the washcloth. Stop. Good job. Don’t hit her. You’re right I said “Dummeldore.” OK nighty night. No, don’t even. President? Of a professional organzination? That’s what blowhards do. You’ll have to fly to Dubai or whatever and I’ll have to deal with all the shit. Well, bring home more bacon, then. We need much, much more bacon. Much more. I’m just saying, I’ll be the one dealing with the shit, as always. I only had two of them, that’s not the thing. Margaritas, not kids. What does that mean. You don’t get it. Whatever. Fuck.


4:00 a.m. I’m awake because my husband is snoring in a weird way and I think it must be sleep apnea. What the fuck is sleep apnea? I hope it’s not something that could kill him, or worse, maim him. So now I’m thinking about how fucked we’ll all be if anything happens to any one of us, given how much debt we have to pay off and how many huge piles of cash we’ll need to save our kids from also having giant debts and how we’ll never, ever be able to retire, ever. I think about us working forever and ever and then I think about earthquakes and that ferry disaster again and, right about now you’re probably starting to understand why the morning hours are so promising for a working writer! The mind spills over with vibrant imaginings that just beg to be formed into another scintillating trend piece or capsule review or “Real Housewives of Atlanta” recap!

But this is just how writing professionals do it. We wake up super duper fucking early and we start thinking our big thoughts and then we write. It’s that simple. This is how you get ‘er done, motherfuckers! Those that doubt me suck cock by choice.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Ed Yourdon.